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'Paid in Full'

Shimmering performance pays off

Friday, October 25, 2002

By Barry Paris Post-Gazette Film Critic

On rare cinematic occasions, a single performance can elevate an ugly subject, a too-familiar plot, a set of stereotypes, an overworked genre.

Wood Harris and Regina Hall are excellent in "Paid in Full." (Myles Aronowitz)

No genre is more overworked than the crime drama. No subject is uglier than the big-time drug business, no story more depressingly familiar than its violent addictions and addictive violence, no stereotype more common than the guy who just wants to make life decent for his kids but gets caught up -- and caught -- in the traffic.

The film is "Paid in Full," and the shimmering performance is by Wood Harris. He plays Ace, the unlikely hero who's simple enough and happy enough making an honest buck in a Harlem dry cleaning store under a bully of a boss but can't help longing for the cars, the girls, the status and the big drug bucks surrounding his best friend, Mitch (Mekhi Phifer) -- a guy who's made the new black American Dream of the 1980s his reality.

"Even Ray Charles can see you got money!"

But Mitch gets busted and has to do time. Ace is his reluctant heir apparent. An ominously hot-headed partner named Rico (rap musician Cam'ron) gets into the act: A star is born. So, eventually, is a territorial war.

They and their maneuvers are based on three actual drug kingpins of the period, subsequently (and pretty reprehensibly) celebrated by rap and hip-hop artists in song and video ever since. The real-life Rico figure, for instance, was a multimillionaire before he was old enough to vote, often raking in $50,000 a day.

Their favorite movie was "Scarface," and they set out to get all of Al Pacino's trappings.

Art and production designers Maher Ahmad and Brandt Gordon wonderfully re-create that "Golden Age" of Harlem style, fashion, music and nightlife in the '80s -- Harlem's dubious share of the Reagan "economic boom," when cocaine dealing took off as a widespread career opportunity, complete with benefits and job security, as a form of deregulated capitalism at its greedy best.

 
 
'Paid in Full'

RATING: R for violence, pervasive profanity, sexuality and drug content.

STARRING: Wood Harris, Mekhi Phifer, Cam'ron.

DIRECTOR: Charles Stone III.

OFFICIAL SITE: None.

CRITIC'S CALL:


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"I love the game!" says Mitch.

Ace loves it less, and his empire will wane with his confidence. But along the way, it is fascinating to discern the different levels and relativity of integrity and treachery in this as any other business -- say, Enron.

The derivative plot will inevitably be compared to such predecessors as "Boyz N the Hood" or "Menace II Society," but the New York instead of L.A. base makes it significantly different and somehow more humanized. There is violence and bloodshed, but not of the gratuitous or saturation kind found in "South Central."

Most of all, there is Harris, who is heart-wrenchingly believable, empathetic and pathetic by turns: shy, slow, self-effacing, honest, trying to keep everybody happy -- "the George Jefferson of the ghetto," his friends tease him. The supporting performances by Phifer, Cam'ron and beautiful Regina Hall as Ace's girlfriend are equally excellent.

Director Charles Stone III was hitherto best known for his wildly popular "Whassup?" Budweiser ads (and music videos). His feature debut here is admirably restrained and propelled by soulful character development rather than mindless action.

This is a very good and very serious film.


Barry Paris can be reached at 412-263-3859.

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