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film review

From left to right, Aldis Hodge as MC Ren, Neil Brown, Jr. as DJ Yella, Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E, O’Shea Jackson, Jr. as Ice Cube and Corey Hawkins as Dr. Dre in Straight Outta Compton.Jaimie Trueblood

The new N.W.A. biopic plays like a superhero origin story. In its precredits prologue, small-time hustler Eric (Eazy-E) Wright (Jason Mitchell, in a breakout role) lithely slips out of a drug house under siege by the police, armed with battering ram and all. Busting through the glass of a back window, narrowly evading the snatch of a snarling dog's jaws as he scales a chain-link fence, then skittering across Compton rooftops to relative safety, Eazy looks like a streetwise Spider-Man.

Elsewhere, the daydreaming Andre (Dr. Dre) Young (Corey Hawkins) is lying on the floor of his mom's house, arranged in a fanned-out pile of records in a way that people always seem to be when they listen to records in movies. Across town, superserious would-be street poet O'Shea (Ice Cube) Jackson (O'Shea Jackson Jr., the real Ice Cube's actual son, looking every inch the part) scrawls lyrics into one of those two-tone Mead notebooks people always scrawl things into in movies. Also: MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.) are there. Differently frustrated with the dreariness, tedium and limited prospects of their no- to low-income neighbourhood, these five urban Avengers form N.W.A. – Niggaz Wit Attitudes.

With their powers combined, and under the tutelage of manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), N.W.A. launched the careers of its banner stars, and reinvented rap music. Their breakout 1988 debut studio album, also called Straight Outta Compton, was certified double-platinum, praised by Sinead O'Connor, and popularized the controversial genre of "gangsta rap." N.W.A.'s lyrics – "reality rap," it's often called in Straight Outta Compton, though I'd never in my life heard this term before seeing the movie – detailed the travails of black life in America in a way that still seems scarily, pathetically relevant circa 2015.

Scenes of the group being hassled by cops for doing nothing other than standing on a street looking the part of a "gangbanger" swell with a breathless tension. Watching it, I was reminded of the Pope's much-publicized endorsement of Mel Gibson's hyper-violent messiah movie The Passion of the Christ: "It is as it was." But this movie demands a revision of John Paul II's pith. Straight Outta Compton isn't as it was. It is as it is.

The topical quality buzzing through Straight Outta Compton comes as a relief. In recent years, Ice Cube has slumped into a family-friendly camera mugger, parodying the flinty hardness he used to rap about so convincingly (though he's very funny in the Jump Street movies). Meanwhile, Dr. Dre is now best known as an impresario selling overpriced headphones that make their wearer look like Elroy Jetson. Even Dre's long-gestating final album – Compton, nee Detox, which was snap-released last week – felt a bit like a calculated tie-in to the biopic about himself that he co-produced. Add to this the early images from early trailers of Giamatti waddling around in a jumpsuit and some wariness about Straight Outta Compton was more than warranted.

Would it turn out a piece of potent, politicized art like the music it chronicles? Or would it be little more than a long-form infomercial for Beats by Dre headphones? Well, to its credit, it's both.

The trick the movie pulls off is the same its namesake album achieved nearly 30 years ago. Straight Outta Compton functions as both a compelling, damnably topical political statement and a slickly produced piece of commercial art. Director F. Gary Gray (who also made the seminal 1995 Ice Cube comedy Friday) shoots the streets of Compton and post-Rodney-King-verdict riots with searing believability, the concert scenes with energy to spare, and the exhilarating escapes and beatdowns with action-movie adrenalin.

Straight Outta Compton is also beholden to plenty of biopic clichés. The middle section of Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy, et al. raking in money has everything short of a Scarface-style montage scored to the rat-a-tat rhythm of a cash counting machine. Likewise, the movie's de facto enemies – Heller and R. Marcus Taylor as Death Row Records co-founder Suge Knight – are almost comically one-dimensional. Giamatti plays Heller as the conniving, pitiable quintessence of the Jewish music manager as Shylockian extortionist. And Taylor's Knight feels like a baddie plucked out of an old blaxploitation B-movie, down to the garish suits and cigar-chomping smirk. Such cartoonish supervillainy is all the better for a superhero movie, I suppose.

The movie doesn't bother digging much into any N.W.A. offences that can't be excused by depicting them as hardened defenders of the First Amendment. Dre violently beating reporter Dee Barnes is, unsurprisingly, not figured in the film. And the allegations of homophobia/anti-Semitism/misogyny levelled against the group are briskly brushed aside. Such knowing lapses are, of course, predictable for a movie that's pulling double-duty as an ad for N.W.A.'s legacy.

Nonetheless, this glossy commercial bent serves the material, which is ultimately a story of outsiders carving out their own space in the larger world of pop culture and commerce. Besides the movie's weight in our contemporary, post-Ferguson historical moment, Straight Outta Compton may also be the funniest, most exhilarating and flat-out best Hollywood movie of the summer.