When Vanilla Ice made the leap from the music scene to the big screen in 1991 with both "Cool as Ice" and "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze," he pretty much nailed the door shut for future white rappers attempting to make a similar transition for the remainder of the decade. In 2002, white rapper extraordinaire and king of controversy Eminem boldly followed in his predecessor's footsteps, although he had the good sense to choose a more serious approach than attempting to update James Dean or provide the musical accompaniment for dancing reptiles. Made on the heels of his massive shoot to stardom and amidst plenty of controversy surrounding his views of women, homosexuals, and fellow celebrities, "8 Mile" gave Eminem a chance to put into visual terms the painful struggles that fueled his emotionally driven and generally angry music.
Eminem stars as Rabbit, a young man struggling to support himself on a low-income job in Detroit while attempting to pursue a career in rapping. He participates in a rap "battle" at a local club to gain exposure, but taunting from the predominately black crowd causes him to lose his nerve. Life for him is rife with violence and animosity, outwardly from a rival rap group known as the "Leaders of the Free World" who usually (but not always) take out their aggression on stage, and inwardly from his alcoholic mother (Kim Basinger) and her live-in boyfriend (Michael Shannon). The dysfunction surrounding Rabbit has made him bitter and reactionary, but he still shows some glimmer of sensitivity and understanding, as demonstrated by his gentle treatment of his little sister who is generally neglected by their mother. He finds further encouragement in Alex (Brittany Murphy), a young girl with big dreams who gives him an incentive to strive for a better life.
Making it out of Detroit means coming to terms with who he is and accepting responsibility, which Rabbit has always skirted by blaming his failures on his unfavorable circumstances. His situations only get worse, however, as his mother receives eviction notices and his friends prove to be less trustworthy than he initially thought. The one chance he has at solving his problems is recording a demo and hopefully getting a record deal, but his personal insecurities and inhibitions on stage are a constant roadblock that he struggles to overcome.
While Eminem has claimed that "8 Mile" is not entirely autobiographical, anyone familiar with his music will be hard pressed not to see the parallels between Rabbit's troubles and the pains expressed in Eminem's music. First and foremost is the struggle to be taken seriously by the black community. White rappers have historically garnered ridicule from the rap industry, and usually for good reason. What separates Eminem/Rabbit from the likes of Vanilla Ice is that his music is not reliant on gimmicks or the illusion of "seeming" like a rapper. It is heartfelt, dark, and deeply self-reflective. All preconceptions about white rappers are dashed once Eminem's intense lyrics are heard. These are clearly not the words of someone who is just trying to cash in on a particular genre. This is the pained and honest rumination of a man whose means of expression happens to be rap.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Eminem's performance is the best thing in the film. With no prior acting experience, he does not so much act as totally embody his character. As with his music, he allows his true personality to show through. From his opening moments puking in a public restroom, quite literally pouring himself out, he makes it clear that this is who he is, straight up, with no pretensions. He is authentic in his emotions, never overreaching, even when the film verges toward melodrama. The most admirable quality in his performance is the amount of restraint he shows, especially in comparison to the rest of the cast.
Less successful are the leading ladies. Kim Basinger and Brittany Murphy are, first and foremost, immediately too glamorous for their roles. Unlike Eminem, they seem artificial in the context of the Detroit ghetto. The character of Rabbit's mother is poorly developed to begin with, never rising above a stereotypical depiction of white trash, and Basinger unfortunately takes the role to near cartoonish levels of ranting. While Murphy is okay, her character is little more than a token, the requisite love interest. Neither of these women comes through as a living person. Rather, they are just broad strokes.
Scott Silver's screenplay bears the greatest blame for largely diminishing the power that this film could have had were it allowed to break bolder ground. Director Curtis Hanson ("L.A. Confidential") goes for a visually gritty atmosphere that is befitting of the story, but the screenplay constantly drags it down the typical underdog path. This is "Rocky" with a rap beat (although in this case, he wins). The central performance and location shooting are at constant odds with contrived plot developments, the most ludicrous of which has Rabbit's mother escaping eviction by winning at bingo and quickly patching up her previous disagreement with Rabbit by making him pancakes. It is a case of a writer clearly not understanding his subject.
The strength of Eminem's performance saves "8 Mile" from being a total failure, but it is greatly disappointing that the overall film could not have been up to his level of intensity. He brings to his performance the same honesty that makes his music so forceful and controversial. But aside from the authentic locations, there is little else in this film that is truly honest or faithful to the story that Eminem consistently tells on his albums.
Universal Home Video's Blu-ray release of "8 Mile" presents the film in full 1080p high definition. The anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen transfer looks great. The film is dimly lit throughout and generally exhibits muted colors as well as lots of film grain. The Blu-ray transfer faithfully supports this look, heightening the grittiness and the rough appearance. Black levels are strong throughout, and the image is sharp. Given the movies intended look, viewers should not expect this to be a demonstration disc for their system. It presents the film as it is supposed to appear in the highest quality possible, and so for that can be praised.
Audio is available in a 5.1 DTS HD Master Audio track that presents both the music and dialogue clearly. The music especially, while not pushing the levels of your system, is distributed well and is pulsating. This, like the video transfer, is not reference quality, but it does a solid job. Spanish and French DTS tracks are also included, as well as English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
The extra features on this disc are a major letdown. All carried over from the 2003 DVD release and presented in standard definition, these offer little insight into the making of the film. First up is a promotional featurette called "The Making of 8 Mile." At little more than 10 minutes, however, it is of no real substance. Next is a 24-minute featurette highlighting some actual rap battles that Curtis Hanson organized to keep the extras engaged during the long hours of filming. His initial plan was to film a silent montage with the best rappers in the crowd, but that scene was not included in the final cut. Finally, the uncensored video for Eminem's "Superman" is included. Pretty trifling stuff.
While competent in its technical aspects, Universal's Blu-ray release of "8 Mile" dropped the ball on improving the original DVD's scant bonus features. The film itself looks great in high definition as its visual rawness is heightened to good effect. While the movie does not reach the heights it should have given the central performer, it likely appeals to Eminem's fans, and this is the way to see it.