In a spellbinding lead performance, all eyes are on Demetrius Shipp Jr. as the charismatic rapper-actor

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Tupac Shakur was a messy, complicated figure, torn between his theater kid background, his activist roots and his street-level thuggery.

It stands to reason that “All Eyez on Me,” the somewhat campy but oftentimes thrilling biopic on Shakur’s life, would have difficulty nailing down its subject. Still, the film makes for fascinating viewing, thanks to the exceptional performance at its center.

In the lead role, Demetrius Shipp Jr. bears such an uncanny likeness to Tupac that when he first appears on screen, he takes away your breath. It’s important to look the part, but Shipp is nothing less than the spitting image of Pac, and the resemblance is so extraordinary, almost eerie in a way, that you can’t take your eyes off him.

It’s more than just a visual similarity. Shipp nails Pac’s magnetism, his charisma, his power, his ferocity, his mesmerizing swagger. He gets Pac’s physicality, his trademark bounce; there’s a scene where he’s vibing in the studio, recording his “California Love” verse where the whole project comes alive. It’s not just an imitation, Shipp becomes Tupac, and his performance carries the film.

It’s too bad, then, that the filmmakers couldn’t quite get a grip on Pac. Yes, he’s a study in contrasts, but who was the real Tupac? Was it the Shakespeare-quoting sensitive soul or the vengeful menace who lived the “Thug Life” that was tattooed across his chest?

Screenwriters Jeremy Haft, Eddie Gonzalez and Steven Bagatourian aren’t sure. So instead of a thoughtful study of Pac’s inner workings, they offer up a series of recreations of events from Pac’s life. It’s a familiar model: 2015’s N.W.A. biopic “Straight Outta Compton” took a very similar approach. As such, “All Eyez on Me” has a soapy appeal; it’s replay value is high, and you can already see it living on forever in repeated airings on VH1.

Pac’s early years are covered quickly. Danai Gurira overacts as his mother, Afeni Shakur, a political revolutionary who later turns to drugs but is always a rock for her son. Pac bounces around from Harlem to Baltimore before landing in Oakland, California, where he hooks up with Digital Underground and begins his ascension up rap’s ladder.

“All Eyez on Me” has a lot to cram in, and it gets to most of the essentials: we see Pac filming “Juice,” standing trial for rape, and dealing with the drama of Death Row Records. (“Poetic Justice” doesn’t make the cut.) Through these events, “All Eyez on Me” pulsates. Music video director Benny Boom keeps the energy high and the action moving, playing the film like a collection of Pac’s greatest hits.

Not all of it works — an early meeting with Interscope Records comes off as bad sketch comedy — but it clips along. Jamal Woolard, who played the Notorious B.I.G. in 2009’s “Notorious,” reprises his role as Biggie Smalls, suggesting an Avengers-like cinematic universe for ’90s rappers biopics isn’t a half-bad idea. (Jarrett Ellis is a hoot as Snoop Dogg, thanks in no small part to what sounds like Snoop’s overdubbing of his dialogue.)

The drama surrounding Pac’s deal with Death Row — he sees through the bluster of Suge Knight (Dominic L. Santana) but is also drawn to it — is muddy as is the East Coast-West Coast feud that ignited a rap war. Since Pac’s murder is unsolved, “All Eyez on Me” doesn’t have any insight into what happened and leaves it ambiguous.

But what “All Eyez on Me” lacks in introspection, it makes up for in voyeuristic thrills. The glaring contradictions were a part of Pac; he never fully sorted them out himself before his death at age 25. What “All Eyez on Me” effectively does is capture the unpredictability of what he was like when he was alive.

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

“All Eyez on Me”

GRADE: B

Rated R for language throughout, drug use, violence, some nudity and sexuality

Running time: 140 minutes

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