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"8 MILE"
(2002) (Eminem, Mekhi Phifer) (R)

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Drama: A young rapper tries to compete with the best locals while getting his life back on track.
It's 1995 Detroit and Jimmy Smith, Jr. a.k.a. "Rabbit" (EMINEM) is a young white man stuck in a dead-end life. After breaking up with his girlfriend, Janeane (TARYN MANNING), he's moved back home into the trailer park with his single, white-trash mom, Stephanie (KIM BASINGER), her much younger boyfriend, Greg Buehl (MICHAEL SHANNON), and Rabbit's young sister, Lily (CHLOE GREENFIELD).

Rabbit spends a great deal of time hanging out with his friends Cheddar Bob (EVAN JONES), Sol George (OMAR BENSON MILLER) and DJ Iz (DE'ANGELO WILSON). He also puts up with the urging from another friend, Future (MEKHI PHIFER), to participate in his nighttime rap standoffs where the contestants have forty-five seconds each to put down and verbally defeat their opponents.

The last time Rabbit tried to compete, he froze on the stage, much to the delight and taunting of rap champion Papa Doc (ANTHONY MACKIE) and the rest of his "The Free World" crew. Notwithstanding that, local entrepreneur Wink (EUGENE BYRD) wants to help him with his budding career, just like he's doing for would-be author Alex (BRITTANY MURPHY), with whom Rabbit is instantly smitten.

While dealing with living at home and working at the local assembly plant pressing car bumpers, Rabbit tries to cope with the internal and external forces that affect his attitude and self-esteem as he tries to get his life back on track and make something of himself.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
Although readers, filmmakers and studio heads may think otherwise, movie critics are human just like them. While it would be nice to attend and review any given film without any preconceived notions or biases like some sort of impartial computer, it's an impossible dream.

Since filmmakers want an emotional response from critics and viewers alike, they must also accept whatever other related baggage that comes with that. Fair or not, critics react to bad seats, theaters, traffic getting there and personal likes and dislikes, just like everyone else.

That introduction out of the way, I have to say that I don't particularly care for Marshall Mathers III or his rap alter ego, Eminem. It's possible he's an entirely different person at home and that his act is just that, but I don't care for the content of his lyrics. Notwithstanding whatever rhyming abilities he may posses, I also don't think he's a gifted recording artist and certainly isn't deserving of the fame, fortune and critical accolades he's received.

Accordingly, I had my reservations and doubts about his big screen debut in "8 Mile." After all, and beyond my personal bias, the cinema is littered with failed music to movie crossover attempts, and this looked like another potential disaster waiting to happen.

That said, and dishing up my own heaping plate of crow, I must admit that the guy can actually act, and that his debut film is rather good. Don't get me wrong, Tom Hanks needed be looking over his shoulder just yet, and the performance certainly isn't Oscar worthy. It is, however, an impressive debut that makes one wonder whether it's just a fluke, or if he could contemplate giving up his day job.

Of course, it doesn't hurt that the character he plays doesn't require a lot of stretching on his part. Following in the purple footsteps of Prince (an infinitely better recording artist but stiff actor) in "Purple Rain," Eminem pretty much plays himself in what somewhat amounts to his life story.

Although not autobiographical, screenwriter Scott Silver's ("The Mod Squad," "Johns") script follows the underdog tale of a young white rapper trying to live and compete in a predominantly black cultural world (along Detroit's 8 Mile Road, its geographic and symbolic border).

Through various trials and tribulations - some of which border on melodrama in a "we're poor white trash" fashion - the young rapper overcomes various internal and external obstacles to achieve his goal and become a better person. It's a pre-built, audience pleasing story that might be formulaic in its basic structure, but it works nonetheless.

It also doesn't hurt that director Curtis Hanson ("Wonder Boys," "L.A. Confidential") is behind the camera and gives the film and its story just the right touches to make it work. Mixing decent amounts of humor with the drama and the moments the rapper's fans will be waiting for, Hanson delivers a winning combination and gets a strong performance out of the novice actor.

The big finale - a rap showdown where the combatants put the others down in bouts of hostile and occasionally rather funny rhymes - will please fans and entertain others. To the filmmakers and star's credit, they manage to make the viewer root for "Rabbit" despite him not being an altogether nice guy.

To some, that will be because the character comes off as the lesser of two evils due to his opponents being some nasty and mean fellows. They're not really fleshed out beyond one-dimensional stereotypes, and few viewers will be in the dark about how things will end. In addition, with the visual boxing symbolism that Hanson draws upon, it becomes more obvious that rap and especially such putdown contests really evolved from boxer Muhammad Ali and his playful and rhyming pre-fight verses.

Notwithstanding the "villains," Hanson also gets decent to strong performances from the rest of his cast. Kim Basinger ("Bless the Child," "L.A. Confidential"), Taryn Manning ("White Oleander," "Crossroads") and Brittany Murphy ("Don't Say a Word," "Sidewalks of New York") play the various women who influence Rabbit's life. Basinger occasionally borders on melodramatic histrionics, but holds enough of that in check so as not to be too obnoxious or stereotypical.

As his friends, Mekhi Phifer ("Paid in Full," "O"), Omar Benson Miller ("Sorority Boys"), De'Angelo Wilson ("The Antwone Fisher Story") and Evan Jones ("Going Greek," "Social Misfits") are all good, with the latter being the best while eliciting thoughts of Steve Zahn playing similar characters.

Although the film isn't intended or structured well enough to be the wholeheartedly engaging "Rocky" of rap, it's probably the best portrayal of that music genre. It's certainly one of the best debuts from such an artist. Funny, well-acted and surprisingly engaging, "8 Mile" rates as a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed November 5, 2002 / Posted November 8, 2002

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