2002 certainly wasn't a year full of surprises in the movie industry. Sequels were made, admissions were up, but most of the year seemed to proceed in a rather ordinary fashion. One of a couple of unexpected successes in 2002, "8 Mile" didn't exactly seem like the most likely to succeed. Eminem had certainly proved his ability to sell records, but he'd never acted before. While the pairing of the actor with director Curtis Hanson ("Wonder Boys") seemed interesting, the screenplay came from the writer of "The Mod Squad" remake. The press was also eager to remind about the disaster of Mariah Carey's "Glitter" the year before.
In November, "8 Mile" hit theaters and surprised just about everyone, from fans to most critics. Not only had Hanson created a compelling drama, Eminem actually had turned in a solid dramatic performance. I'd guess that even the filmmakers were shocked by the film's first-week gross, which topped $50 million.
The film, apparently a semi-autobiographical tale of Eminem's life, stars the rapper as Jimmy Smith, Jr. or, as his friends call him, Bunny Rabbit. As the movie opens, we see the aspiring rapper working on his moves in the bathroom of a local club. He seems confident, until he goes to throw up in the bathroom. When he hits the stage with best friend and show host Future (Mekhi Phifer), he lets the other contestant in the rap battle go first, and the competition proceeds to tear him apart. When it's his turn, he freezes.
To make matters worse, his girlfriend's just gotten pregnant and he faces the unpleasant prospect of moving back in with his mother (Kim Basinger), who's currently living with a boyfriend that went to school during the same year he did. He has a job, but also doesn't have a car that always starts. A romantic interest enters in the form of Alex (Brittany Murphy), an aspiring model who also wants to get out of Detroit.
The story is the traditional formula of talented, troubled individual growing up in a hard situation who wants the big chance - the opportunity to showcase his talent and let it take him to another level in life. If this is formula, it's especially well-handled. Jimmy's friends aren't stereotypes, but fully-realized characters that form a believable support group to help him overcome his fear enough that he can finally rap on stage. And, of course, the film is leading up to the final rap battle where Bunny Rabbit can outrap all contenders. Even most who aren't fans of the music will likely be impressed with the energy of the scene and the skills of the rhymes, many of which are pretty hilarious. I also liked the way that the film ended on a positive, subtle note that indicated hope for the future but didn't spell it out.
The performances also go a long way towards making the movie a success. Eminem is excellent in his first starring role, providing a restrained performance that's convincingly dramatic and occasionally, quite funny (a rap remake of "Sweet Home Alabama" is especially amusing). Supporting performances by Taryn Manning, Brittany Murphy and Mekhi Phifer are also terrific. The only performance I didn't find particularly believable was Kim Basinger as Eminem's mom - not because she looks too "pretty" for the role, but because she simply didn't do much with one of the only characters in the film that feels thinly written. The film is technically solid, too - Rodrigo Prieto ("Frida")'s cinematography is gritty, desaturated and consists of some masterfully composed and powerful images.
"8 Mile" certainly isn't without some concerns. Basinger's character seemed like an afterthought, and although Murphy's character's intentions flip-flop a bit too much, she and Eminem have great chemistry. The movie's intensity and performances carry it along for quite a while, but there's a stretch in the third act of the movie, right before the final, that seemed to drag a bit.
Overall though, "8 Mile" works. It's an impressive debut for Eminem and, with excellent support from director Hanson and a fine supporting cast, the movie makes for a compelling and enjoyable drama.
VIDEO: Universal presents "8 Mile" in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. Rodrigo Prieto's cinematography is nothing short of remarkable, and is presented here superbly. Sharpness and detail are stellar throughout the film, and there's a depth to the image that's impressive - it looks almost three-dimensional at times.
The only fault that I noticed with the presentation was that some extremely slight edge enhancement was present. While visible, it never became a distraction. Compression artifacts weren't seen, nor were any print flaws. Some minimal grain was seen at times, but I'd guess the grain was an intentional element of the cinematography.
The film's color palette was certainly desaturated, but darker, richer colors occasionally showed through well. Black level remained solid, while flesh tones generally looked accurate. An excellent transfer from Universal.
SOUND: Universal presents "8 Mile" in Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1. The film's soundtrack is above-average, but really doesn't deliver more than the expected amount of activity. Surrounds remained silent for much of the movie, but there were a few moments here and there throughout the film where ambience was nicely presented by the rear speakers. The surrounds also kicked in during the rap battles for reinforcement of the music. As expected, most of the soundtrack comes from the front speakers, which support the rap soundtrack very well. Dialogue/raps remain crystal clear, while a nice low-bass kick is present in several scenes. The DTS soundtrack offered slightly improved clarity and stronger bass, but the two soundtrack options were otherwise very similar.
French Dolby Digital 5.1 and English & Spanish Dolby 2.0 tracks are also provided.
EXTRAS: The "8 Mile" DVD is presented with "censored" or "uncensored" bonus features. Be sure to check out the packaging (or online web page) to make sure you're getting the one you want.
Exclusive Rap Battles: This 24-minute documentary shows the audition process for some of the rappers in supporting roles in the film. Interviews with Hanson and Eminem are also provided in the early portion of the piece. The last portion of the documentary shows some deleted scenes as we get to see some of the finalists try out against Eminem in rap battles.
Also: Other than the rap battles, there's surprisingly little. We get a brief "making of" featurette, bios, notes on the music, Eminem's "Superman" video, the trailer (DD 5.1), production notes and "recommendations" (I recommend that Universal try again with a Special Edition).
Final Thoughts: "8 Mile" may have a conventional story, but strong performances and a great visual style make it into an effective and enjoyable drama. Universal has provided a DVD that offers great audio/video quality, but the supplements are surprisingly lackluster. Still, I'll give it a recommendation.