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‘All Eyez on Me’ Is a Great 2Pac Impersonation, but Not a Great Movie

If you’re a Pac fan, though, it’s worth seeing

(Lionsgate)
(Lionsgate)

All Eyez on Me, the new Tupac Shakur biopic directed by Benny Boom, is heavy-handed and runs about 45 minutes too long. The movie unfolds in a brutally linear succession of expository set pieces — from Pac’s Black Panther parental origins all the way through his exploits as a rapper, actor, and convict — with one scene hurtling into another and landing awkwardly, if at all. Boom is known for making music videos, and it shows: each vignette has a superficial sheen but collectively, the narrative lacks cohesion. Swelling music telegraphs the melodrama; the dialogue is forcefully delivered — particularly by Danai Gurira, who plays Pac’s mother, Afeni — but entirely unsubtle.

It’s a predictably hagiographic retelling of Pac’s life, if not an especially artful one. The most effective scenes are word-for-word reenactments of YouTube-able moments. The rest are imagined depictions, some more problematic than others. 2Pac’s 1993 sexual assault case is presented as the "he said" version of the story, a study in how not to approach this kind of material. All Eyez endured 20 years of squabbling to finally get made, and upon its release it’s already drawing the ire of those closest to him. (The fight for 2Pac’s soul, in life and in death, will never end.) If there’s one thing we can agree on, it’s that no Pac biopic would ever satisfy all of the people who cling to his legacy.

And yet — it’s fucking 2Pac. If you grew up listening to his music, it’s hard not to get sucked into the movie the moment you hear the thumping bass of "So Many Tears" in the opening minutes. What ultimately justifies All Eyez on Me — at least for this Pac fan — are the frequent moments that touch that nostalgic nerve. There’s of course his music, sprinkled judiciously to rescue lulls in the script, and the lively recreation of events that have long since become Pac lore: the initial meeting with Biggie (played by Jamal "Gravy" Woolard, in a reprisal of his Notorious role); the shootout with off-duty police officers in Atlanta; the ambush at the Quad Recording Studios in New York; the scene of the fatal shooting in Las Vegas. Pac’s short life was an operatic saga, so even the worst version of his story would have inherent tension and drama. It’s low-hanging fruit, but it tastes good just the same.

Without a convincing 2Pac, All Eyez on Me could have been an abject disaster. Newcomer Demetrius Shipp Jr. will have a difficult time shaking this role, given how well he embodies Pac — not only through an uncanny physical resemblance, but also in the way he convincingly portrays the transformation from an awkward theater kid into the "Thug Life" persona that led to the rapper’s demise. The real 2Pac was a compelling avatar who stirred the desires of men and women — gangstas, groupies, Suge Knight — who all wanted to steal a piece of his aura. As these influences converge on him in the film, Shipp effectively captures the rapper’s primary struggle: Pac should’ve been a king, but he was always a pawn. It’s a performance every bit as good as O’Shea Jackson Jr.’s turn as Ice Cube in Straight Outta Compton, but with a much higher degree of difficulty, since Shipp has to carry an entire movie. He won’t win anything but an MTV Movie Award, but it should be the springboard to a promising career.

The director Boom is a rap lifer, so the fan service in All Eyez extends beyond the obvious. Some of the film’s secondary moments are the most interesting, like when Pac learned, in the midst of his legal troubles, that he wasn’t getting a role in John Singleton’s Higher Learning. There’s a scene in the prison yard where Pac seethes as he hears Biggie’s "Who Shot Ya" for the first time. We also see Pac crossing paths with Biggie’s then-wife Faith Evans in a nightclub, a moment immortalized in a photograph (and hyperbolized on "Hit ’Em Up"). The film may largely be a regurgitation of Pac’s legend, but at least it tries to add something to the mythology.

Which brings us to the end — inevitably, on the Las Vegas street where Pac was fatally shot in 1996 at the age of 25. Thankfully, the film doesn’t delve into conspiracy theories around the shooting (though one wonders if Pac and Suge were really listening to "Blackberry Molasses" moments before he was killed). The camera pans up as we look down on Pac’s bullet-ridden body. A gospel song plays: "Jesus died for me." It’s obvious, it’s clumsy, and it’s a little cringe-inducing — but it’s effective all the same.