[Screen It]

(2002) (Wood Harris, Mekhi Phifer) (R)

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Drama: Various young men get caught up in the street drug trade of 1980s era Harlem.
It's Harlem in the mid 1980s and Ace (WOOD HARRIS) is trying to live the straight life while watching others get ahead of him via illegal means. He works at a laundromat run by Mr. Pip (CHI McBRIDE), but sees the high lifestyle of his drug dealer friend, Mitch (MEKHI PHIFER), as well as that of another dealer, Calvin (KEVIN CARROLL), who's dating his sister.

Despite his abundant cash flow, Mitch still lives at home where he watches over his 12-year-old brother, Sonny (REMO GREEN), and dislikes having middle-aged freeloader, Ice (RON CEPHAS JONES), hanging around his mother. He wants Alex to join him in the lucrative drug trade, but the only thing Ace is interested in regarding Mitch is his sister, Kiesha (REGINA HALL).

Things change for Ace when he meets Lulu (ESAI MORALES), a sophisticated dealer who gives Ace a laundry tip comprised of cocaine. With Calvin busted and off the scene, Ace hesitantly decides to sell the coke to one of the dealer's clients and thus enters in the business.

With Mitch also off the streets and in prison where he meets and joins forces with the volatile Rico (CAM'RON), Ace suddenly becomes the biggest dealer in the area. Yet, when Mitch, Rico and Calvin are eventually released from prison, they share or want a piece of Ace's action, all of which leads to some unexpected and tragic consequences.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
Today's minimum wage salary in the U.S. is $5.15/hour or a bit more than $10,000/year which is only slightly above the federal poverty line. An everyday, street-based drug dealer can make that amount in considerably less time. Accordingly, one can see the allure of such a "job" to the young, particularly when they see such dealers -- in real life and the movies - portrayed as rich and powerful.

Of course, they usually seem to ignore that such dealers don't retire somewhere down in southern Florida, but rather spend their "golden years" in prison or cemeteries. Such was the case with A.Z., Alpo and Richard Porter who were high-flying drug dealers in Harlem during the '80s. Their story has now inspired "Paid in Full," the feature film debut for director Charles Stone III who previously helmed TV commercials including Budweiser's "Whassup" ads.

A standard, run-of-the-mill drug drama, the film shows the rise and fall of three young men through the lucrative narcotics trade back when the minimum wage for regular workers was just $3.35 per hour. Told in what's increasingly becoming an annoying narrative fashion where the bulk of the story is told in flashback after some brief introductory material, the film competently introduces the characters and shows their involvement in or growing attraction to the drug trade.

Stone, who works from a screenplay by newcomers Matthew Cirulnick and Thulani Davis, then follows the characters through their roller coaster ride of power, fame and riches. Beyond the various individual character details, however, there's nothing here that you haven't seen before in countless related films of the same genre.

Nevertheless, Stone manages to keep the proceedings interesting for a while until things ultimately start to unravel in the third act. At that point, developments start to show up at a frenetic and episodic pace while various clichés and genre conventions start piling up. That's the result of the filmmakers apparently watching too many similarly themed and plotted films as well as their effort to jam in the remaining historical and/or fictitious material needed to bring things to a close.

It doesn't help matters that we don't like or care about any of the characters, despite otherwise solid performances from Wood Harris ("Remember the Titans," "Committed"), Mekhi Phifer ("O," "Shaft") and Cam'Ron (a rapper turned actor making his film debut) as the main trio. With no empathy or sympathy for them or what happens to them, we have no vested interest in their or the story's outcome. Some of that stems from not making Harris' character enough of a victim either in terms of being lured into the business or by what ultimately happens to him and his friend.

Supporting performances from the likes of Kevin Carroll ("The Object of My Affection," "Jesus' Son"), Esai Morales ("La Bamba," TV's "NYPD Blue"), Chi McBride ("Disney's The Kid," "Gone in 60 Seconds") and Regina Hall ("The Best Man," the "Scary Movie" films) are decent, even if some of the characters they and others play are shallowly written and/or are one-note creations (such as McBride playing the wise voice of the older generation).

Something of a cautionary tale about dealing drugs and trying to make the quick buck, the film is an okay entry in the drug saga genre, but it's clearly better in its first half than in the second. "Paid in Full" rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed October 7, 2002 / Posted October 25, 2002

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