dir George Tillman Jr
scr Reggie Rock Bythewood, Cheo Hodari Coker
with Jamal Woolard, Angela Bassett, Derek Luke, Anthony Mackie, Dennis LA White, Kevin Phillips, Antonique Smith, Naturi Naughton, Christopher Jordan Wallace, Jasper Briggs, Julia Pace Mitchell, Aunjanue Ellis
release US 16.Jan.09, UK 13.Feb.09
09/US Fox 2h03

Biggie and Puffy: Woolard and Luke

luke bassett mackie
Berlin film fest
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Notorious This biopic about Christopher "Biggie" Wallace is a slick, fascinating look at the rap music business. But before giving in to sentiment, the film struggles to make us like this talented man who never quite grew up.

Christopher was bright child (played by Wallace's real son) before he drifted into Brooklyn's drug-fuelled subculture as a teen (Woolard), much to the horror of his mother (Bassett). After time in prison he discovers music, and through his friendship with "Puffy" Combs (Luke) becomes a huge star. But a media-generated rivalry between east and west coast rappers spirals out of control, claiming the life of his ex-pal Tupac Shakur (Mackie) and then Biggie himself at just 24 years old.

The film opens with the murder then shifts back to a straightforward story about a smart boy who becomes a criminal because it's his only option. This is a fairly simplistic approach to a hugely important issue, and it forces the true story into a standard movie structure, complete with overwritten narration and a slick style that seems to gloss over the awkward elements.

For example, the film continually tries to convince us that Biggie was on the verge of becoming a responsible father to his two children. And yet there's no real evidence of this on screen, as he continues his hotheaded, lying, womanising ways right to the end. Meanwhile, his mother and Combs are portrayed as saintly and selfless, respectively. That said, they're extremely well-played by Bassett and Luke. And there are also strong performances from Smith and Naughton as scorned women Faith Evans and Lil Kim.

This could be seen as an attempt to show the man warts and all, but the film struggles to show us what was so special about him. And it doesn't really get under the surface of the rapidly growing feud that eventually caused his death, settling for that old chestnut: blame it on the media. As a result, the final sequence in which Biggie starts to think about what's important feels rather sentimental and moralising. It's an important story, and the film is still watchable, but it leaves us wanting more raw honesty.

cert 15 themes, very strong language, violence, sexuality 28.Jan.09

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© 2009 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall