8 Mile opens with a scene out of Rocky. We're backstage at the Shelter, where Detroit's trash-talking rappers settle their differences, and Eminem's Jimmy "Rabbit" Smith is about to go on. Shadow-boxing to a beat only he can hear, Rabbit ' a white man in a black man's world ' seems both very prepared and very scared. Finally, he makes a beeline for the toilet, where he pukes his guts out. The show must go on, of course, and before you know it Rabbit's standing in front of the toughest crowd this side of a firing squad. And when he opens his mouth to bust a rhyme or two, out comes...nothing. M.C. Stammer has lost his voice, and the crowd, enjoying itself immensely, chants "Choke! Choke! Choke! Choke!"
It was very shrewd of the brilliantly repulsive Eminem to make his movie debut by playing a rapper who can't seem to get his tongue untied. Famous for his use of "bitch" and "faggot" as verbal assault weapons, Eminem has one of the loosest tongues in the business. It's also one of the sharpest tongues, and while watching 8 Mile you can feel the audience members around you, many of them in baggy pants and hooded sweatshirts, waiting for His Eminence to start slicing and dicing. They'll get their wish, but first the movie wants us to imagine an Eminem who hasn't sold 30 million records, who hasn't won all those Grammys, who hasn't caused a certain music-video outlet to temporarily change its name to EM-TV.
Call it The Marshall Mathers Story, since Scott Silver's script samples freely from Eminem's own ride down Detroit's 8 Mile Road, which separates the haves from the have-nots. Or call it a Horatio Alger story, one of those rags-to-riches tales in which a little bit of luck and an awful lot of pluck bring on the American Dream, thereby restoring our faith in this Land of Opportunity. Although it stops short of making Rabbit a star, 8 Mile is a surprisingly old-fashioned go-for-it movie. What's new is the sound of its voice, the sound of Eminem's voice ' a new whine in an old bottle. I'm not sure the guy cracks a smile the entire movie, but he doesn't really have to; sullenness becomes him. Yo, a star is born.
Or at least conceived, for although he's in every scene, Eminem doesn't do much more than variously control and lose his temper. Rabbit's a hothead, but he tends to bottle things up inside, finally exploding when the pressure rises too high. And 8 Mile is a veritable barometer of rising pressure. There's Rabbit's skittish mom (Kim Basinger), a trailer-park hottie who's dating a guy Rabbit went to school with. There's Rabbit's new girlfriend (Brittany Murphy), a fashion-model wannabe who's screwing her way to the top. There's Rabbit's crew, who see Rabbit as their ticket out of the 313 area code. And there's every other rapper in Motown, who would gladly carve Rabbit a new one at the Shelter's Friday-night "battles."
It's a dog-eat-dog world, Dog. And director Curtis Hanson does a nice job of keeping it real. Shot on location in Detroit, 8 Mile doesn't prettify this abandoned city one bit. Nor does it wallow in the ugliness; crumbling buildings are simply part of the landscape. Hanson uses a handheld camera in the battle scenes, which turn their backs on 100 years of cinema by substituting words for swords. "It's like a sport that is someone's life," Eminem has said about these one-on-one tongue-lashings, where the motto is "Live by the word, die by the word." But it's also art. And the whole thing is strangely reminiscent of West Side Story, where the Jets and the Sharks put on their dancing shoes to high-kick some ass.
There's a veil of innocence draped over 8 Mile. Rabbit's friends would have been right at home with Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. When they indulge themselves in drive-by shootings, it's via paint balls. And when they torch a house, we're asked to join in the celebration. Of them all, only Rabbit seems to realize that life's not all fun and games. Nor is it all guns and fame: He wants something more. Eminem has shed a few pounds and dyed his hair brown to play this inner-city Boy Scout, and you have to wonder what Slim Shady, the other voice in his head, would have to say about it all. But if there's such a thing as selling out with integrity, Eminem has done so, negotiating his way into the mainstream of American entertainment with a deftness that Elvis might have envied.
Instead of Blue Hawaii, black-and-blue Detroit.