Tupac Shakur was many things: rapper, thug, poet, militant, icon. One thing he was not was boring. He lived his 25 years with the intensity of someone who knew his time on Earth was limited, and created one of hip-hop’s most celebrated careers in the process. It is for these very reasons that All Eyez On Me, his long-awaited biopic, is such a head-scratching disappointment. Who knew such a riveting life could make for such a boring film?
The film is directed by Benny Boom, who’s proven adept at music videos, but it appears, less so when it comes to long-form narrative and character development. He blocks and shoots each scene with a tedious “and then this happened” pace, not unlike a skit that would precede one of his 50 Cent or Lil Wayne videos. It doesn’t help that the first half of the film is framed by the hallmark cliché of all biopics: an interview with a journalist (Hill Harper). Instead of exploring Tupac’s character, though, Boom simply uses the framing device as an excuse to cut between flashbacks as quickly as possible.
These flashbacks are treated with the tact of a middle school play. We’re introduced to Tupac’s mother, Afeni Shakur (Danai Gurira), his lifelong friend Jada Pinkett (Kat Graham), and his rap mentor Shock G (Chris Clarke) in quick succession. But Boom never lingers on a single beat long enough to establish a rhythm, and barring Afeni, he never returns to deepen these relationships in later scenes. To make matters worse, each of them serve the same storytelling purpose: to remind the viewer that Tupac (Demetrius Shipp, Jr.) is important. “Your stepdaddy is a revolutionary,” Afeni tells her young son. “I’m gonna be a revolutionary,” he replies.
Nearly every line registers with the same tackiness. Boom prioritizes frame-for-frame recreations of Tupac’s famous interviews and appearances to the detriment of any real storytelling, and the film just assumes we’ll be tickled by every statement, e.g., “I report from the streets. I’m educating and keeping it real”, that comes out of his mouth.
Those seeking refuge in the music will also be disappointed. All Eyez On Me doesn’t seem to know how to make Tupac’s songs, many of which are already cinematic in scope, work on the big screen. Instead of serving as an embellishment, classics like “Brenda’s Got a Baby”, “So Many Tears”, and “Dear Mama” serve as tacked-on filler for an already-bloated runtime. Rarely do we get more than a few seconds of a song, or logical placement of the song in the narrative. Even after Tupac’s release from prison, a triumphant anthem like “California Love” fails to ignite the magic that “Boyz-in-the-Hood” or “F**k tha Police” did in 2015’s Straight Outta Compton — a film that, given similar events and characters, shows how to properly balance song and storyline.
The script’s reliance on iconography over reality reaches its apex in the third act, as scenes with Tupac’s label mates Dr. Dre (Harold House Moore) and Snoop Dogg (Jarrett Ellis) come off way too convinced of their own coolness. It’s also clear that screenwriters Jeremy Haft, Eddie Gonzalez and Steven Bagatourian aren’t sure whether to use Tupac’s final months to make him into a martyr, a messiah, or a cautionary tale, so they attempt all three — and fail spectacularly on all counts. Tupac gets bullied by the cigar-chomping Suge Knight (Dominic L. Santana) in one scene, and in the next, he’s discussing dietary habits with his mother. Some might argue this is due to his contradictory nature, but really, it’s just sloppy storytelling.
As Tupac, Demetrius Shipp, Jr. does what he can. He bears an uncanny resemblance to the real ‘Pac, and there are times when he manages to nail the rapper’s motor-mouthed cadence, but too often he’s left to fend for himself without competent direction or anyone to work off of. Much of this comes from the fact that the script shies away from anything that could reflect poorly on Tupac, particularly his prison stint for sexual abuse in 1995 (the film clumsily implies that his accuser, Ayanna Jackson, was the guilty party). Shipp is forced to give us a sanitized, overly simplified Tupac as a result, more fitting for a t-shirt than the advertised “untold story” of his life.
Mercifully, there are moments when Tupac’s spirit shines through — namely, when the dialogue and direction are at a minimum. A flashback to 1987 Baltimore has Tupac witnessing two policemen beat up a civilian. Stripped of pretense, the somber fear in his eyes is legitimately stirring. A similar moment occurs after a shootout in Marin County in 1992, where the now-adult rapper recovers enough only to see a dead boy being cradled by his sobbing mother. Again, nothing is said, and the film allows the weight of the situation — Tupac being faced with his self-destructive tendencies — to linger. Given the sparseness with which these moments occur, however, I’m inclined to pass them off as happy accidents.
By the time we arrive at Tupac’s fatal 1996 shooting in Las Vegas, All Eyez On Me is so desperate to make some sort of grand statement that gospel music is laid over the image of his Christlike body on the pavement. It’s as forced as you’d expect it to be. Even then, it might have been excusable had the film given us any inkling as to who Tupac was beneath all the bravado and the battle rhymes. His was a life that deserves scrutiny and genuine exploration. At the very least, he deserves a storyteller as good as himself.
Perhaps in an effort to make the BluRay release more appealing for fans, All Eyez On Me comes packed with special features. There are featurettes dedicated to the audition process, interviews with the cast and crew, and a documentary detailing the film’s lengthy production.
Producer L.T. Hutton is the central voice for most of these featurettes, and his desire to make Tupac proud (the two were friends in real life) comes off AS bittersweet, given how poorly it translated to the screen. If All Eyez On Me were worthy of its inspiration, these special features would be a superb addition. As it stands, they’re simply an extension of dissappointing film.