(Entertainment Weekly) -- Certain movies, like "8 Mile," "Rocky," or "Saturday Night Fever," walk an entrancing line between realism and pop mythology.
They're tales, at heart, of Hollywood uplift -- of struggle and triumph, of an underdog's stubborn dream -- yet scene for scene, moment to moment, they are made with so much grit and spirit and verve, such a deep-dish flavor of the streets, that their inspiration is rooted in something authentic and rare.
"Hustle & Flow," Craig Brewer's drama about a small-time Memphis pimp who pours his life into cutting a homemade crunk tape, is that kind of movie. From the moment we see DJay (Terrence Howard) seated behind the wheel of his ratty parked Chevy, rambling out a seductive monologue about the distinction between ''man'' (a mere dog, he says) and ''mankind,'' we're drawn to the exotic inside portrait of a flyweight urban hustler who knows how to cast a spell.
When DJay speaks, in the smokiest of smoky drawls, the words come out slowly, sliding into each other, the cadences fused in a lyrical back-porch whisper -- a barely perceptible form of intimidation.
He sounds, at times, like an old Southern man telling a story, and though DJay isn't old, exactly, the years are beginning to add up for him. Pushing 40, he's a veteran of the streets, one who's grown weary and a bit numb hawking his girls out of cars, using his casual gift for words to keep them in line.
Terrence Howard, in the single most powerful performance I've seen this year, inhabits this character with a casual mastery that makes him a world unto himself; we're in touch with his ambition and sadness, his rage and longing, as if they were our own.
DJay's hair is conked with old-school '60s-style curlers, and his flesh peddler's face is handsome yet puffy, as if he'd been presenting it to the world as a mask for so long that he'd forgotten what's under there. He may be an exploiter, yet he is not, by nature, a cruel man: Howard plays him with the hidden, bone-deep anxiety of someone who has spent his life coasting on outlaw instinct.
The movie, which is sharply paced and terrifically shot, sketches in DJay's relationships with his working girls, furious Shug (Taraji P. Henson) and sexy, ignorant Nola, played by Taryn Manning like a deer in cornrows. DJay, by contrast, is a dog running out of tricks, so when he bumps into Key (Anthony Anderson), a sound engineer he knew back in his school days, and gets the idea to put some rhymes to paper, it's not just a movieish lark. He's out to save what's left of himself.
The home-studio recording sequences in "Hustle & Flow" are funky, rowdy, and indelible. Brewer gives us the pleasure of watching characters create music from the ground up, beat by beat, take by take. DJay and Key, trapped in his bourgeois marriage, and Shelby (DJ Qualls), a gawky white church musician who's a wizard with a beatbox, are all out to escape the drudgery of their anonymous lives; that's what makes the sessions cathartic.
As DJay works up a demo mixtape to give to Skinny Black (Ludacris), a hometown rapper-turned-platinum-selling star, some may accuse "Hustle & Flow" of softening a pimp's brutality, yet the movie, in an odd way, is never more honest about the violent and tawdry degradation of DJay's life than when we hear him chant his ripped-from-the-gut lyrics (''Whoop that trick -- get 'em!''). Those words imprint themselves on the audience. So does "Hustle & Flow.
EW Grade: A-