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Eminem shows great promise

Let’s face it: All “8 Mile,” a picture starring Eminem, had to be was not bad.

It could have taken the hip-hop musical route, like “Krush Groove,” or the misunderstood-gangsta movie exit, as a white “Juice.” And, if the attendant soundtrack and music video did their jobs, everyone involved could have gone home with cheddar in their pockets, even more when the DVD was released, and reputations intact.

But director Curtis Hanson, producer Brian Grazer and, most impressively, Marshall Mathers III didn’t drive down Easy Street. They chose to make “8 Mile,” a movie that is for Eminem what “A Hard Day’s Night” was for the Beatles: a movie that codifies a myth while turning it inside out and holding it up so we can see our reflection.

Their “8 Mile” is a formula movie that tweaks the formula in so many inventive, intelligent, insightful ways as to transcend it altogether. It is a movie that will satisfy hip-hop and Eminem fans in ways they never expected; even more significantly, it will touch people who thought they hated hip-hop and/or Eminem in ways they would have never expected.

Like Hanson’s two previous films, “L.A. Confidential” and “Wonder Boys,” “8 Mile” is also a movie about the ways a specific, singular environment affects the people who live in it – which, naturally, makes the film even more significant to those of us who know what the title means before the movie explains it. It’s not a movie about escaping; it’s a movie about changing.

Though “8 Mile,” set in 1995, is inspired by Eminem’s remarkable real-life story – a white boy who takes a black idiom not just to a new audience but to a new level – it is not just a rejiggered autobiography. He’s not playing Eminem, he’s playing Jimmy Smith Jr., aka Rabbit, a gifted rapper who suffers the misfortune of not being what he needs to be (i.e., black) or where he needs to be (i.e., New York or Los Angeles) to be taken seriously.

His friends, especially Future (Mekhi Phifer), the emcee at the hip-hop hot spot the Shelter, encourage him. But when Jimmy finally works up the courage to prove himself, going rhyme-to-rhyme with his rivals, he freezes.

He’s also just broken up with his girlfriend, who has announced she is pregnant, forcing him to move back into a trailer park on 8 Mile with his hard-luck mom, Stephanie (Kim Basinger), and his little sister (Chloe Greenfield), on whom he dotes. If that’s not embarrassing enough, his mom is sleeping with a jerk whom Jimmy and his friends went to high school with (Michael Shannon) and who thinks music died when Lynyrd Skynyrd went down in that plane crash.

To get gas for a beater that barely runs, Jimmy takes a job at the New Detroit Stamping Plant. But he spends his nights cruising Detroit with his Three One Third crew, ambitious Future, big-hearted Sol (Omar Benson Miller), politicized DJ Iz (De’Angelo Wilson), and hapless Cheddar Bob (Evan Jones).

Over the rock-steady beats of 2Pac, Biggie and Naughty by Nature, they talk about what young men in Detroit talk about: getting a record deal, getting better jobs, getting along with their families, getting out, getting on in a city that can’t even get it together to tear down an abandoned house where a little girl was raped.

The movie’s Detroit will also be recognizable to Detroiters as a place where the race card is played facedown, where the real divide is between those who got and those who grab.

I have little idea how much of this life Mathers actually lived before becoming Eminem, champion of the alienated, scourge of civilized society. But I can say that his performance is as convincing as it is charismatic; he’s in virtually every scene of “8 Mile,” and you can’t take your eyes off him.

He doesn’t actually show off the skills that got him here until the movie is more than a third over, in a parking lot where he busts a rhymer who’s been ragging on a gay fellow employee. The scene may be calculated to counter the accusation that the real Eminem is a homophobe, in the same way that “8 Mile” goes out of its way to denounce gun violence, but it’s a brilliant calculation. By the time Jimmy finally takes the stage at the Shelter to make his stand, we’re rooting for him like we did for Rocky Balboa.

“Rocky” is an obvious inspiration for Scott Silver’s script, which also owes a debt to “Saturday Night Fever.” However, “8 Mile” leaves its far more articulate hero at a far more realistic juncture in his life at the film’s end.

It also leaves those of us who have had concerns about the overwhelming impact hip-hop has had on youth culture with a better, clearer understanding of what young men like Jimmy want and why they want it. If they want to burn down the house, argues this powerful portrait, it’s because they want to build a new home for themselves.