Demetrius Shipp Jr. looks a lot like Tupac Shakur. While in some circles that could be enough to recommend the first-time actor for the part of the beloved late rapper, it’s a casting choice indicative of much bigger issues in Benny Boom’s long-gestating biopic, “All Eyez on Me.” The casting choice suggests that a commitment to accuracy, but that doesn’t make up for many other shortcomings in a movie that does no favors to Tupac’s legacy.
Opening with a political urgency that belies a very different project, Boom’s film (penned by Jeremy Haft, Eddie Gonzalez, and Steven Bagatourian) initially reads as a timely rallying cry around Shakur’s legacy, before devolving into a paint-by-the-numbers biopic that unspools with as much energy as a Wikipedia entry. Framed in the most uninspiring way possible — with Hill Harper playing a journalist who visits Tupac in prison to reflect on his life and legacy — the film is hobbled by exposition-heavy voiceover and an ill-conceived decision to flip back to the jailhouse interview just as things are really kicking up.
It’s a persistent problem throughout a film, which is choppily cut by editor Joel Cox, with nearly every scene snipped oddly short. It’s a technique that diffuses energy and forward motion at every turn, and one that really does a disservice to Shipp, who’s at his best when he’s given more time to settle into a scene. (A second act meeting with record execs that sees Tupac delivering as close to a manifesto as he’s allowed is a highlight specifically it allows Shipp to show his range.)
Stretched out across two-and-a-half hours, “All Eyez on Me” has more than enough room to hit the highlights, but it instead wastes precious time lazily flipping through chapters in the rapper’s life with few thematic connections, and instead ticks through years and events as if they were required. Most damning of all is that Tupac’s creative process remains woefully under-explored, and his rise to fame is mostly delivered via thinly-written narration. Instead, “All Eyez on Me” is much more interested in brashly showing off the trappings of fame (ladies, clubs, booze, weed) than the road that led to them.
The Tupac of “All Eyez on Me” shows zero interest in and talent for rapping until nearly an hour has gone by, when his talents are apparently awoken by a spoken word poetry class that’s not explained in any deeper terms than the absolute basics. His burgeoning movie career gets the same treatment, and Tupac’s achievements are hailed with a shrug, simply stops along the way to getting back into the salacious personal details that the film is more preoccupied with portraying. Even for casual fans, it’s disappointing.
Although “All Eyez on Me” occasionally dips into Tupac’s complex nature (his relationship with his family and his revolution-focused upbringing are of particular import), it always zips away the moment deeper motivations and themes are explored. Elsewhere, the film lacks any hard and fast sense of place or time, and though it uses a fair number of Shakur’s actual songs, they’re few and far between, and other period-appropriate tracks are also glaringly absent. A Tupac Shakur movie should be big and vibrant and loud, but “All Eyez on Me” is off-key at every turn.
Tupac’s relationships with such essential people as Jada Pinkett (Kat Graham) and Biggie Smalls (Jamal Woolard) are undercooked, even as Shipp is saddled with lines about how much they mean to him (to say nothing of other important figures, from Faith Evans to Dr. Dre, who are given one or two scenes before they’re totally forgotten). The last act of the film is understandably dominated by his relationship with Death Row founder Suge Night (Dominic L. Santana, who makes the most of his role), though the complex feud they embark on with both each other and the Bad Boy team could very easily make for its own film.
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At least one supporting character makes it out unscathed: Danai Gurira — as Tupac’s beloved mother Afeni — comes out swinging during the film’s opening sequence and never lets up, believably burning right through the screen, conjuring the kind of passion the rest of the film lacks. If anyone makes off with a movie star turn in “All Eyez on Me,” it’s “Walking Dead” star Gurira, next bound for a major part in the upcoming “Black Panther” feature.
The film unfolds with bare-bones production values that at times work in its favor (musical performances that play out on literally small stages feel intimate, for example), but other moments feel distractingly TV movie-like, including Boom’s propensity for going slo-mo during important moments. Yet, as Tupac’s final moments approach — send Tupac Shakur to Las Vegas for a Mike Tyson fight in the middle of his outspoken issues with Bad Boy and others, and you know what’s happening next — Boom’s film finally hits its stride, satisfyingly blending Shipp’s performance with video of the actual Shakur in his final moments, unknowingly charging forward to tragedy.
As the film winds down, Boom ratchets up the tension, and when the fateful bullets are finally fired, it’s hard not to hope for a different outcome. It’s also hard not to hope for a better film to give them the context they deserve.
“All Eyez on Me” opens in limited release on Friday, June 16.