MOVIES: Biggie bio dramatizes bicoastal rap rivalry

Hardscrabble youth braves the streets before using his God-given talents to rise to the top, earning millions on the way there. It just so happens that the hardscrabble youth in question is a drug-dealing, obese rapper by the name of Christopher Wallace.

Mr. Wallace, aka Biggie Smalls, is portrayed with verve and warmth by Jamal Woolard, an aspiring rapper and newcomer to the acting biz. He’s rescued from the streets and a life of slinging crack by Sean Combs (Derek Luke), a would-be mogul who knows talent when he sees it. The pair hit the streets, hustling to get work and get Biggie’s name out there.

Along the way, we encounter a number of luminaries from the mid-‘90s rap scene. Biggie rescues Kim Jones (Naturi Naughton) from a department store and renames her Lil; Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie) makes an appearance; Biggie seduces and marries Faith Evans (Antonique Smith). The music entertains, and the film delivers a solid, if unspectacular, biopic.

Though it never quite devolves into pure hagiography, the film’s central tale of crack dealer made good is sometimes a little too hokey for its own good (“We can’t change the world unless we change ourselves” is a representative line) especially as it relates to the murkier aspects of the West Coast/East Coast feud that consumed the rap scene in the mid-‘90s and culminated in the still-unsolved murders of Mr. Wallace and Tupac Shakur.

It’s fair to ask whether a movie executive-produced by Sean Combs (aka Puff Daddy, aka P. Diddy) can accurately portray the ins and outs of that heated feud. He was, after all, an integral part of that little conflict, and “Notorious” devotes a fair amount of its two hours to the dust-up.

If “Notorious” is to be believed, the bad blood between West and East was little more than a contrivance cooked up to sell hip-hop magazines. And if anyone should be blamed, it’s Tupac and his West-side allies; they overreacted when Mr. Shakur was shot after partying it up in New York City.

This is, to put it mildly, a contentious interpretation of events. I imagine Mr. Combs’ West Coast counterpart, Suge Knight, has a different take on things.

Then again, Mr. Knight spent the past decade battling the law, while Mr. Combs’ biggest concern is skyrocketing fuel costs for his private jet. Looks like Puffy’s going to get the last word after all.

★★½

TITLE: Notorious

RATING: R (Pervasive language; some strong sexuality, including dialogue, nudity and drug content)

CREDITS: Directed by George Tillman Jr. Written by Reggie Rock Bythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker.

RUNNING TIME: 123 minutes

WEB SITE: www.foxsearchlight.com/notorious/

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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