By Leah Greenblatt
June 16, 2017 at 05:06 PM EDT
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Credit: Quantrell Colbert

Maybe there’s more than one good reason so many biopics struggle to make it the screen: How can celluloid even begin to capture the quicksilver charisma of artists whose bodies of work—and more often than not, attendant reams of interviews, music videos, and performance clips—still live with us?

All Eyez on Me tries, in its own sturdy, earnest way, to fit Tupac Shakur’s extraordinary arc into the square pegs of movie-making, but it’s too conventional by half: a Wikipedia script whose greatest gift is newcomer Demetrius Shipp Jr.’s startling physical resemblance. (Even more strangely, Shipp’s father actually worked with Tupac briefly, producing a track that surfaced on one of his posthumous albums.) And he’s not a bad actor, either, though there’s something vaguely teddybear-ish in him that can’t touch Pac’s fierce magnetism; even in the story of his own life, he’s more a lost boy than a leader.

It doesn’t help that the screenplay wraps half its exposition in a trite framing device—a series of prison interviews, that, like most things in the movie that actually happened, are worth taking the time to dig up online—and spends the first third hitting the bullet points of his biography with all the speed and subtlety of a nail gun: the Black Panther mom, the chaotic moves from New York to Baltimore to California, the early demos and first major-label deal. (Though other aspects, like his film career and how his friendship with Biggie turned into a blood feud, are only skimmed).

The movie pays dutiful lip service to the issues of prejudice and power and black male sovereignty that so profoundly shaped Shakur’s life, and that he spoke to so forcefully. But it doesn’t seem to know quite what to do with them, other than acknowledge that they exist. Instead, it rushes ahead, charging through the recording sessions and romances and court dates until it reaches the intersection in Las Vegas where it all came to bloody, brutally pointless end.

For the millions of fans who bought Tupac’s albums and made him a folk hero even before his death (and even for the ones who still refuse to believe he’s not alive somewhere in Havana or Sao Paulo, laughing and smoking a fat cigar), there’s a lot of nostalgia, but few revelations; for the unfamiliar, it’s probably a pretty decent introduction. For both, there are certainly worse ways to pass two and a half hours than to spend them with even a mild approximation of the man and his music. But there’s also a much better one, and it’s as close as YouTube or Spotify or even the nearest turntable. B–