By Rhymin’ Jack Ruby

8 Mile is a relatively inoffensive movie that is something of an update of Saturday Night Fever or The Karate Kid told in the world of hip-hop under the eye of the rather talented Curtis Hanson who got a really solid performance out of rapper Eminem. It’s not an Oscar movie, it’s not the most entertaining movie ever made, and, I’m sure, there will be parts of it that will have people throw up their hands Hooper-style saying, “I don’t need this working class hero crap.” But, that doesn’t mean it’s not an above-average picture.

In fact, though some of it feels forced, the rap sequences are, for the most part, pretty exceptional. When Eminem really shines is towards the end, when – in a climactic “battle” between him and a handful of other rappers – he really cuts loose and just raps the way he does now, with a gritty style and panache (and those completely blank, I-could-snap-at-any-moment eyes of his) that really closes the movie well. So, if Eminem is your thing, this is definitely your movie (we’re not in Crossroads territory here, aiiiight?).

Eminem plays Jimmy Smith Jr. aka Bunny Rabbit, a lower class sheet metal worker in Detroit who has recently split with his girlfriend and come home to live with his mother (Kim Basinger, not her best work) and his little sister in their trailer home. Jimmy has dreams of becoming a big time rap star, as do his circle of friends including “Future” (Mekhi Phifer – a good turn for him), Cheddar Bob (Evan Jones) and then a pair of stereotypes that we’ve seen explored from Do The Right Thing to Undercover Brother – a Militant Young Black Man balanced out by the hijinks of his Large Wisecracking Black Friend. So yeah, at the end of the day, what brings the movie down a notch is its constant reliance on “movie cliches.”

Anyway, Jimmy starts to get noticed for his “skills” as a rapper – particularly by Future, who runs “battles” at the Shelter, a local rundown club where, like a poetry slam, rappers take on each other in rapping insult contests like a fight club without throwing a punch. Future thinks Jimmy is the next big thing – and so does Wink (Eugene Byrd), a sly, young hustler-type who always has an angle and is always trying to swim to the head of the line. A positive on this movie is that Wink could’ve easily been one-dimensional but instead, he’s a fully-realized character and you can pretty much understand his motivations no matter what he does.

Enter Alex (Brittany Murphy). Alex wants to go to New York and become a model and she’s pretty much going to do whatever it takes to get out of Detroit. She and Jimmy share that dream and she’s confident in his talent – but is it just so she can meal-ticket her way out with him? Though the movie has a lot in common with something like Karate Kid (lower-class kid who doesn’t fit in because of his ethnicity, has to hone his skills on his own in secret, big bout at the end where he fights a group of baddies who kicked his ass [literally] previously, etc.), this is where it veers off. Everybody wants a piece of Jimmy because he’s the real deal, but that doesn’t necessarily make them bad people. Everybody just wants to get out and sometimes they don’t know what they’re saying/doing. Jimmy’s the same way – half the time he’s got his guard up and half the time he’s trusting the wrong person. So, it gets a little hazy for him.

When Brian Grazer started trumpeting Eminem’s performance as “Oscar-worthy,” he basically sealed Eminem’s fate for NOT getting an Oscar with his early press blitz and holding up his perf as something to pick apart. The thing of it is, Eminem is pretty damn good in this (Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt is better, however, and is my early handicap pick) as the volatile Jimmy Smith, likely/partially due to the fact that this movie is pretty autobiographical (allegedly) and he’s just playing himself, but also because he does have a fairly blank-faced stare that can erupt into violence whenever provoked (and a pointed nose that acts as a divining rod/chip-on-his-shoulder). And yeah, there’s a lot of violence to be found in 8 Mile so you don’t have to look far.

What keeps this from being a truly exceptional movie is that there is nothing here that feels “new.” In fact, it is so predictable that you’re surprised that this would come after the, Gee-what-the-hell-is-going-to-happen-next feeling of Hanson’s Wonder Boys. Yes, Hanson’s gritty, ground-level attitude towards shooting it gave it a great look, but it wasn’t the most ambitious script (a lesser director would’ve made this into Glitter, crazy/beautiful and Save the Last Dance).

Anyway, 8 Mile is worth seeing as a Curtis Hanson film and an Eminem film, but it’s nothing new and while it looks and feels like Rocky with hip-hop (yes, the music is really good, but it’s not a revelation like the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack), it isn’t all that much aside from a typically cliched movie. And if there’s an Oscar run on it (Brian Grazer really wants to be the West Coast Harvey Weinstein – tell me that’s not accurate, true believers), I really think it will be a lot of hype and the movie underneath won’t hold up.

Still, truly above average in the look and feel of the film in an attempt to root the pic in reality and a lesser director and a lesser lead actor would’ve made this unwatchable.

7.0 out of 10