Dir: Curtis Hanson. US. 2002. 110 mins.
Flashdance gets an electrifying sex change and upgrade courtesy of director Curtis Hanson and rap icon Eminem in 8 Mile. A loose retelling of Eminem's own troubled youth in the run-down 8 Mile district of Detroit, the film is a downbeat, but not depressing, rags-to-riches saga which is musically thrilling and dramatically satisfying. Although its content is strictly adult, teenage Eminem fans will break all the rules to see it and adults will be drawn by strong critical response and awards attention which is likely for Hanson and probably the outspoken star himself. Universal should enjoy an across-the-board worldwide hit - yet another from Brian Grazer and Ron Howard's Imagine Entertainment - albeit on a smaller scale than A Beautiful Mind, its last blockbuster a year ago. The film opens in the US on Friday (Nov 8).
Hanson is as at-home with the white trash youth of 8 Mile as he was with 1950s LA cops in LA Confidential or the academic circles of The Wonder Boys. He boldly plunges into the hard-knock existence of inner-city kids and captures the monotony, dangers, temptations and optimism that it contains. But unlike so many less gifted film-makers, Hanson avoids the cliches of the milieu. Yes, there are guns and violence here, but they are less a danger than loss of spirit and determination to which the under-privileged rap-crazed crews can so easily succumb.
A good beating is par for the course - Eminem gets thoroughly messed up in one scene - but Hanson and screenwriter Scott Silver imbue him and his gang with strong personalities and an integrity that is rarely given characters in portraits of inner-city life. Not to mention the fast and furious intelligence it takes to improvise the modern-day poetry of rap. It's invigorating to watch such distinctive characterisations in what is essentially a formulaic premise.
Eminem is Jimmy Smith or Rabbit, as he is called by his friends. The only white guy in his crew who can rap - and amazingly well at that - he is encouraged by his best friend Future (Phifer) to enter a rap contest on stage at the local all-black nightclub The Shelter. But shaken to the core by nerves, he clams up and is booed off stage. That same night, a miserable Rabbit leaves his girlfriend and moves in to the trailer in which his hopeless, penniless mother (Basinger, giving an okay but not entirely believable performance) lives with her baby daughter and an unemployed layabout (Shannon) of his own age who offers the promise of an insurance payout.
As the film unfurls over a week in the life of Rabbit, the audience experience his working life in a local factory, his evening rap sessions, his troubled relationship with his mother and a burgeoning affair with wannabe model Alex (Murphy, excellent). Finally at the end of the week, after an escalating run of fights, conflict and betrayals, Rabbit takes to the stage at The Shelter for a rap-battle with members of a rival gang. With the razor-sharp observations and provocative wit for which the star himself is renowned, Rabbit wins the day in spectacular fashion. Adult audiences unfamiliar with the world of rap will find new respect for the rapper's art in these giddily enthralling scenes.
Eminem is obviously playing himself to some extent but, on another level, he gives a genuinely great film performance. Insecure and aggressive, tender and bruised, self-confident but world-weary, he is magnetic to watch from the moment he walks on to the screen. He interacts fully with the professional actors and deserves kudos, although critics and awards voters will be unlikely to recognise him.
Pop culture commentators will be amused to see the controversial star leap to the defence of a gay co-worker at the factory who is being put down by others during a break. Having been accused so publicly of homophobia, it's a self-conscious moment of redemption for Eminem that reminds the audience who this character really is.
Prod co: Imagine Entertainment
Int'l dist: Universal Pictures/UIP
Exec prods: Carol Fenelon, James Whitaker, Gregory Goodman, Paul Rosenberg
Prods: Brian Grazer, Hanson
Scr: Scott Silver
Cinematography: Rodrigo Prieto
Prod des: Philip Messina
Eds: Jay Rabinowitz, Craig Kitson
Main cast: Eminem, Brittany Murphy, Kim Basinger, Mekhi Phifer, Evan Jones, Omar Benson Miller, Eugene Byrd, Michael Shannon