Paid in Full
A film loosely based on the true story of Harlem's notorious '80s cocaine kingpins, who learned the hard way that dealing drugs is bad business.
Wood Harris (Remember the Titans) is Ace, a gangly, shy, hardworking dry cleaning errand boy who is apparently the only honorable sort in his Harlem neighborhood--until the lure of fame and fortune in the 'hood proves too tough to resist. His sister's coke-dealing mack daddy basically runs the 'hood, his best friend Mitch (Mekhi Pfifer) sells enough drugs to buy a slick new set of wheels every other day, and it seems everyone else around him is either buying or selling cocaine. Ace stays out of it until one day he's recruited by a mysterious, smooth talking (and super-rich) South American supplier (Esai Morales), who sends him out with the highest-grade Colombian coke the streets had ever seen. Suddenly Ace is the Man; Mitch and his hot-tempered buddy Rico (Cam'ron) become his partners, and pretty soon the three are rolling in dough. They've got multiple 10g rolls in their pockets, flashy gold jewelry, cars, women, and most of all, respect on the street--whether given by force, coercion or alliance. All good things must come to an end, and these guys come crashing down hard when the stakes get too high, the tables turn and innocent lives are lost.
Pfifer is the most charismatic of the three major playaz here, but there's something that doesn't quite ring true about his character. Mitch is a guy who can kill in cold blood and deals drugs for a living, yet he's a loving, devoted dad who ends up getting duped in the most obvious, implausible way. You'd think he would be much more streetwise, with his wits about him and a dangerous attitude, but he's not threatening at all. Harris' gangly, awkward, soft-spoken antihero is likable, but somehow he keeps you at arm's length throughout the movie and you never warm to him. Plus, you'd expect him to be at least a little more dynamic as time goes on--after all, he's the kid who single-handedly introduced Colombian coke to the streets, yet he's the same ill-at-ease, shy kid he was as a delivery boy getting teased by his friends. Rapper Cam'ron is an effective loose cannon, although he grew up on the streets in real life so how much of a stretch is it really? Morales as the Colombian dealer makes a brief but notable appearance, as does Chi McBride as the abrasive but goodhearted owner of the dry cleaning business (although curiously his, like several other characters, are never revisited after about a third of the film).
Straightforward direction from Charles Stone III (of the short film True and the famous ''Whazzup'' Budweiser ads based upon it) lays it all on the line in Paid in Full. Little use of cinematic bells and whistles helps to efficiently tell the story, which is this film's best feature. Unfortunately, he uses the Filmmaker 101 crutch of flashback narrative (the opening scene is a year after the events of the rest of the movie) and, even worse, he relies on an incoherent, random voice-over to push the plot along. For a film supposedly set in the big, flashy, consumerist '80s, Paid in Full's muted tone makes it feel more like the post-grunge '90s. Where are the great shots of New York? (Stone's Harlem doesn't really look like New York, more like a few streets in Any Ghetto USA.) Where are the breakdancers? Where's the old-school soundtrack? Where's Grandmaster Flash when you need him? Although the hip-hop soundtrack is adequate, the lack of a 1980s pop culture backdrop makes the movie less interesting (albeit less like your typical rapsploitation movie, so some may find that a good thing).
Paid in Full uses fairly well-drawn and acted characters to tell an interesting story, but that alone may not entice moviegoers looking for a New Jack City-type gangsta flick.