Unpacking Tupac Shakur’s life would be daunting for anybody hoping to capture it in one biopic: Black Panther mom, turbulent childhood, theater school, hip-hop stardom, movie fame, criminality, charisma, rap feuds, prison, surviving a handful of gun battles, then tragically not surviving one at the age of 25.
He was a cauldron of machismo and sensitivity, a poster child for misogynistic gangsta rap who could fire you up with a message of injustice or melt your heart with tracks about welfare mothers. This cut-short icon thrived on his contradictions.
But the dramatized movie we’ve gotten, “All Eyez On Me,” is a hagiographic dud that unfolds like a depth-free magazine listicle. It’s clearly intended to capitalize on the success of “Straight Outta Compton,” yet there are single shots in “Compton” that convey more mood, information and insight into its music’s origins than the entirety of “All Eyez On Me.” It’s a slipshod movie convinced you’re either too enamored to want anything besides an attention-deficit-disorder gloss over Shakur’s accomplishments, or too dazzled by its startling-lookalike lead Demetrius Shipp, Jr. to care whether Shakur is given dimension or not.
One need look no further for proof of shallowness than the shopworn framing device director Benny Boom (“Next Day Air”) and his three screenwriters use to compartmentalize its subject’s life: an unnamed journalist (Hill Harper) interviewing the rapper in prison. This allows for both spoken questions (“That’s where you met Jada Pinkett?”) and narrated answers (“They was feelin’ my flow, and I got signed!”) that preclude conveying anything through filmmaking, or scenes that might have to go longer than a minute.
Shakur’s roots as the son of a tried-and-acquitted Black Panther mother (Danai Gurira), who moved the family from New York to Baltimore and finally Oakland, are treated like one big trailer. It’s a insipid blur of militancy, law-enforcement brutality, poverty, and drug-dealing, with shouted dialogue (“We’re moving again?!”) to drive home that we’re moving along, nothing to dwell on here.
In one moment, Shipp is delivering Hamlet’s soliloquy in performing arts school, and in two whiplash moves he’s dancing and rapping with Digital Underground and nailing a recording contract. Rather than show you how Shakur landed his breakthrough role in Ernest Dickerson’s “Juice,” Boom inexplicably jumps straight into Shipp recreating his character Bishop’s “I am crazy” monologue. Nothing against Shipp, but this recreation only triggers a desire to see the real thing.
That’s this movie’s MO when it comes to the subject’s talent: make Shipp imitate the performance and duplicate the thug-life swagger, and consider the journey a foregone conclusion. Shipp isn’t bad, he’s just all personality, relegated to working his uncanny resemblance like a novelty act. The only other role that comes close to feeling substantive is Gurira’s, but her intense pop-up appearances, from knowledge-dropping militant to recovering addict, never gel into one memorable portrayal.
“All Eyez” is the mash-note version of Shakur’s life, essentially, less concerned about the inner life of a man who struggled to reconcile image and art, and infinitely more worried that you’ll think badly of him because he had run-ins with the law and did time for sexual abuse. It’s maybe the most defensive biopic ever made. The portrayal of his rape accuser, from her introduction ass-shot-first in a club to her vampish sex-scene behavior, to her smug look of satisfaction as the sentence is read in court, is, frankly, reprehensible.
Earlier, when Shakur’s more woman-unfriendly lyrics are brought up, Boom cuts to Shakur’s “one true friend” Jada Pinkett (Kat Graham, “The Vampire Diaries”) giving the seal of approval by smiling and laughing on the phone with him about his sexually braggadocious “I Get Around” video. We’re good, right?, the movie implicitly asks, before reminding you in stilted dialogue how many records he sold and breakthroughs he made.
Boom, who hails from music videos, treats many aspects of Shakur’s life like a chance to do the beats-and-montage version, complete with intro. When his mother Afeni visits him in prison for a little Shakespeare (“to thine own self be true”) and tears, you know “Dear Mama” will kick in any second.
Boom’s other go-to is superficial movie sampling: A nefarious dealer named Nigel (Cory Hardrict, “Warm Bodies”), star of the subplot that leads to the lobby ambush that nearly killed Shakur, is straight out of the crime-movie cliché handbook. A fancy dinner with Death Row impresario Suge Knight (a suitably imposing Dominic Santana) circling the table and showing off his new stars Shakur and Snoop Dogg (a cadence-sharp Jarrett Ellis), turns into a tired riff on the baseball bat scene in “The Untouchables.” Later, it’s a “Goodfellas” shoutout, when Knight, knowing Shakur wants to leave Death Row, leads him into his office — uh oh — but only kills his spirit by producing an expenses ledger that effectively says, “We own you.”
Even the late-stage introduction of Quincy Jones’ daughter Kadida (Annie Ilonzeh, “Empire”) as a redemptive romance rings hollow: she’s the calm before the storm of violence on the Vegas strip, nothing more. Twenty years since his bullet-riddled demise, Tupac Shakur remains a fascinating figure in the history of a convulsive, demonized, glorified and influential music movement. But “All Eyez On Me” is strictly the cheap greatest-hits package when what its subject warrants is the deep-cuts boxed set.