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Originally published Thursday, January 15, 2009 at 4:00 PM

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Movie review

"Notorious" is B.I.G. on talent

"Notorious": Jamal Woolard and the always fascinating Anthony Mackie lead a fine cast in this somewhat compelling biography of rapper Chris "Biggie Smalls" Wallace (aka The Notorious B.I.G.).

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 2.5 stars

"Notorious," with Jamal Woolard, Anthony Mackie, Angela Bassett, Derek Luke, Antonique Smith, Naturi Naughton. Directed by George Tillman Jr., from a screenplay by Reggie Rock Bythewood and Cheo Hodari Coker. 100 minutes. Rated R for pervasive language, some strong sexuality including dialogue and nudity, and for drug content. Several theaters.

"Are you a bad guy trying to be good, or a good guy trying to be bad?"

In the biography "Notorious," that witty inquiry is asked of the film's subject, rapper Chris "Biggie Smalls" Wallace (aka The Notorious B.I.G.), by his future wife, Faith Evans (Antonique Smith), on their first date.

The question is also at the heart of this vibrant and somewhat compelling film's portrait of Smalls (newcomer Jamal Woolard). A self-invented child-man trying to navigate through life as a populist icon and artist, Smalls' journey to adulthood courses through a world of excess and danger.

Despite the fame, groupies and air of hip-hop royalty, who Smalls is, what he is, is as much a mystery to him as any other young, and especially fatherless, man.

"Notorious" begins at Smalls' real-life end, as a New Yorker caught up in a bicoastal battle between rap cultures that is far from clearly explained in this film. That really wouldn't matter except for resulting confusion around Smalls' friendship with Los Angeles rapper Tupac Shakur (Anthony Mackie), a relationship that went south quite badly and ended tragically for both.

The film jumps back to Smalls' early years as a schoolboy raised by a proud, protective single mother (Angela Bassett), and accelerates with his discovery that he can write, and spontaneously recite, rap lyrics.

Smalls' mean-streets fortunes go up and down until he falls into the hands of Sean "Puffy" Combs (Derek Luke), an entrepreneur portrayed as a visionary fount of wisdom. (Combs is an executive producer on "Notorious.") Lurching toward fame, Smalls struggles with fatherhood, fidelity and artistic mentorship to off-and-on lover Lil' Kim (Naturi Naughton), whose snakebite vulgarities give "Notorious" the fun edge it needs.

Director George Tillman Jr. ("Men of Honor") doesn't scrimp on energy, but his storytelling style is so straightforward as to look like network television.

The best thing about "Notorious" is its across-the-board, excellent cast, especially the soulful Woolard and Mackie's mesmerizing work as the complex Shakur.

Tom Keogh: tomwkeogh@yahoo.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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