“Paid in Full” begins as a serious, straightforward account of the origins of the cocaine trade and “gangsta” culture in 1980s Harlem, but then downward spirals due to a weak plot and gratuitous violence. Pic seems destined to disappoint auds expecting the guns-blazin’ ghetto spectacle promised by Miramax’s ad campaign, one that’s at least as misleading as the one the distrib concocted for the recent “Undisputed.” Nonetheless, pic reps a better than expected debut from Charles Stone III, the director of Budweiser’s “Whassup!” commercials. Dropped into release during the hotly competitive fall season, “Paid in Full” may not cash in fully at the box office, but should find more paying customers at the video store.
Fact-based story focuses on three notorious Harlem drug dealers of the 1980s — A.Z., Alpo and Richard Porter — whose legendary exploits have been the subject a litany of rap songs. Concerned that kids might be getting the wrong message, the now clean A.Z. (the only one not dead or behind bars) decided to write a movie based on his experiences. Final screenplay, however, is credited to writers Matthew Cirulnick and Thulani Davis.
“Paid in Full” owes much of its depiction of Harlem’s vicious circle of poverty, drugs and crime to a slew of cinematic forebears, among them “Superfly” and “Sugar Hill.” New pic attempts to create — but doesn’t quite achieve — a richer, Spike Lee-esque tapestry of stories of daily life in Harlem.
Yarn begins with Ace (Wood Harris, in the role based on A.Z.) being near-fatally shot in a robbery attempt gone awry, then flashes back just one year to chart Ace’s meteoric rise and fall from dry cleaning errand boy to Harlem’s most powerful drug lord.
The marvelously subdued Harris (“Remember the Titans”) makes Ace’s odyssey compelling, even when pic seems to abandon his character in later reels. Wood excels at capturing the nuances of Ace’s ascendancy from mild-mannered kid to man of power (the real A.Z. was a multi-millionaire before his 18th birthday).
In the early-going, Harris gets outstanding support from Chi McBride (as Ace’s impervious dry cleaning boss), Kevin Carroll (funny and frightening as the dealer whose unexpected prison sentence parts the waters for Ace) and, best of all, Esai Morales (elegant and assured as Ace’s drug dealing mentor).
In tandem with cinematographer Paul Sarossy and production designer Maher Ahmad, Stone does an admirable job of immersing aud into atmosphere of the times and the specifics of the setting, from the gameshow “Sale of the Century” blaring from a bedroom TV to a throng of kids hovering over a “Rambo” pinball machine.
Pic’s back end focuses on Ace and his best friend Mitch (Mekhi Phifer, also quite good) running Harlem’s streets, with some help from a Puerto Rican thug Rico (rapper Cam’ron in his acting debut). Unfortunately, ending is made too obvious too soon. But before that, pic blurs its hitherto sharp focus on the Ace character, losing him in a melee of peripheral storylines as a left-field kidnapping plot and a series of gangland-style retribution killings thrown into the mix. All this packed into the last half-hour of “Paid in Full” makes pic feel akin to watching all three parts of the “The Godfather” trilogy simultaneously, on fast-forward.