After splitting up with his girlfriend, aspiring white rapper Jimmy lives on the poor side - the black side - of the 8 Mile divide in Detroit with his single mom. While working at a steel pressing plant, Jimmy tries to work up the nerve to enter the local rapping 'battles' and earn some respect and a ticket out of destitution.
Let's get this over with: 8 Mile is the rap Rocky, the hip-hop Saturday Night Fever. But just because comparisons are easily made does not make them uninstructive. Lest we forget, both Rocky and Saturday Night Fever were instant pop classics, shrewdly engineered yarns of personal triumph set against a harsh, blue-collar landscape.
And, like boxing in Rocky and dancing in Saturday Night Fever, rapping in 8 Mile possesses redemptive power - raw talent will always out. In fact, the chief difference in this case is that the charismatic leading actor is not in need of an iconic moment. Eminem is a star already.
As Jimmy, Eminem's (or rather Marshall Mathers; there's none of the bluster of Eminem, or Slim Shady, here) internalised performance does not invite sympathy easily. Often hooded and perpetually wearing a cap and scowl of some description, he keeps the audience at a safe distance. The camera does not love him (Rodrigo Prieto's unforgiving camera loves little in the steely, blue bleakness of Detroit) because his power must be carefully guarded, much like the music which we hear only fitfully for most of the movie.
Of course, in the best Rocky tradition, 8 Mile demands a climactic showdown. However, when Jimmy is called to 'battle' against a rival rapper, the punches cannot be pulled; for the movie to work at all, Eminem's natural skills must finally break free. Without giving anything away, the manner of Jimmy's triumph is one of the most exhilarating scenes you will see all year.
And yet Curtis Hanson has crafted too nuanced a movie to close on an unambiguous high. This is not The Karate Kid. Indeed, in the closing moments, it becomes clear that the organising myth of 8 Mile is perhaps not Rocky, but Shakespeare's Henry IV Part I. Jimmy is Prince Hal, the king in waiting, who must stop slumming in low company and strike out on his own if he is to ascend to his rightful throne. From Rocky I to Henry IV - it really is that good.
Following <b>L.A. Confidential</b> and <b>Wonder Boys</b>, this makes a remarkable hat-trick for Hanson and is a personal triumph for Eminem. As MC Hammer might say - U Can't Touch This.