Eminem's Star Turn Shouts Yo, Hollywood!

How angry is Eminem, the brooding dark prince of perpetually aggrieved sensitivity? Let us count the ways.

Angry enough to sell 30 million albums, a record for rap. Angry enough to outrage guardians of public decency and allow every disaffected teenager in the United States to slipstream on his inextinguishable hostility. And angry enough to attract commercially savvy producer Brian Grazer and Curtis Hanson, one of the most adept and sophisticated of directors, to make "8 Mile," a major studio release based loosely on the first steps in the up-from-the-underclass journey Marshall Mathers took to become one of the rulers of rap.

But just as "8 Mile's" story is book-ended by battles, one-on-one gladiatorial rap contests in which the audience picks a winner, so the film itself is a battle between God's angry man, this creature of insatiable rage and the boa constrictor Hollywood system, willing and able to swallow anything whole and make it fit a predigested mold. Even an artist whose justifiable boast is "I just say whatever I want to whoever I want whenever I want wherever I want however I want" could disappear without a trace.

Remarkably, however, that did not happen with "8 Mile," a fascinating, surprisingly entertaining stand-off that has adroitly managed to satisfy both of its constituencies, allowing all sides to legitimately claim victory.

Yes, as written by Scott Silver, director of 1999's "The Mod Squad" (with, according to Entertainment Weekly, uncredited work by Jesse Wigutow), "8 Mile" is very much an old-fashioned somebody-up-there-likes-me kind of story, replete with traditional plot devices (will the hero have to work on the night of the climactic battle?) that are decades old. This venerable structure in effect facilitates the mainstreaming of rap, enabling civilian audiences to feel the safety and security of familiarity that's simply not in the cards when listening to Eminem's earlier, more nasty and threatening work.

Yet, though you can see "8 Mile" and not really know exactly why the man aroused passion pro and con across the United States, you certainly get a strong hint. Eminem has such intense presence that even in the film's somewhat denatured form, he and his music have undeniable power and integrity. In fact, Eminem's seething fury, impossible to even think of disguising, is the realest thing in the film and the heart of its appeal. His hostility, savagery and disgust as well as his undeniable musical gifts come from too deep a place to be completely blanded out the way Elvis' talents notoriously were, and fans who come to ride this particular whirlwind will also not be disappointed.

Given the past history of rock-star movies, it was far from certain that this particular marriage of sensibilities would work. Two interlocking factors were key in frankly enabling us to forget how formulaic "8 Mile" is. One was Eminem's genuine presence and on-screen charisma; the other, director Hanson's filmmaking gifts, including an ability (witness Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe in 1997's "L.A. Confidential" and Michael Douglas in 2000's "Wonder Boys") to get memorable performances from his lead actors.

With deep-set, out-from-under eyes and an eight-mile stare, Eminem is someone the camera likes from the moment he steps on screen. With his tattoos covered by a hooded sweatshirt and his piercings on hiatus because of the film's 1995 setting, the actor has something of the quality of an updated James Dean (the director suggested he watch "East of Eden," but apparently that never happened) and he carries the picture like it's second nature.

Eminem plays Jimmy Smith Jr., a.k.a. Bunny Rabbit, an aspiring Detroit rapper with a genuine gift for language but an uncertainty about what to do with his life. When "8 Mile" begins, he's carrying everything he owns in a black plastic trash bag and is about to move back in with his impecunious mother, Stephanie (Kim Basinger, who won an Oscar in Hanson's "L.A. Confidential"), and her loutish boyfriend, Greg (Michael Shannon).

Jimmy and his friends dream of rap stardom, and in fact two different people insist that they are Bunny Rabbit's ticket out. One is his pal Future (Mekhi Phifer of 1995's "Clockers" and 2001's "O"), who wants Jimmy to persevere in the rap battles he hosts; the other is neighborhood entrepreneur Wink (Eugene Byrd), who insists, "I'm building my empire, and I'm taking you with me."

With a guy as good-looking as Jimmy, a romantic entanglement is also inevitable. He runs into the attractive Alex (the talented Brittany Murphy), an aspiring model, at the car-bumper factory where he works. At the same factory, Jimmy has "8 Mile's" most curious scene, a rap battle where he comes to the defense of a maligned gay fellow worker, a sequence that feels like it has more to do with the star's well-publicized difficulties with the gay community than furthering the film's plot.

Though Jimmy has run-ins with rival rappers, Eminem has such an overpowering presence that the only involving conflict his character has is with himself. Like Shakespeare's Prince Hal, he is royalty in mufti, wrestling with inner demons before feeling the confidence to declare himself the heir apparent, if not the king.

This is a classic story, and in Hanson "8 Mile" has one of Hollywood's most accomplished classicists, a director whose films seem instinctively to make all the right moves. Hanson was also shrewd enough to build in a six-week rehearsal schedule to enable his star to feel comfortable with the moviemaking process.

Hanson also insisted that "8 Mile" (named after a Detroit street that is a racial and economic dividing line) have the particular texture of the Motor City, Eminem's hometown. He shot the film on location and used Philip Messina, the production designer on "Traffic" (2000), and cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, who did the gritty "Amores Perros" (2000), to ensure an authentic look.

Though some of "8 Mile's" realistic touches get wearing -- there's more use of "dog," as in "yo, dog" than in the annual meeting of the Westminster Kennel Club -- the film is never more real than when Jimmy unloads his anger on someone close to him, a frequent occurrence. Eminem is an actor with a rare gift for rage, and movie careers, even big ones, have been built on less.

"8 Mile" opens this week in English at the America Cinema and in Russian at Formula Kino. See the listings below for showtimes.