Mellow-man Ace spends his days making minimum wage at the local cleaner’s, respectfully declining every time the drug trade comes knocking on his door. Invitations to the game come fast and furious, day-in and day-out to the hero of Paid in Full: from his sister’s no-good boyfriend Calvin, from his best friend Mitch. It’s the 1980s and coke flows through Harlem’s streets like Cristal at a Jay-Z party (coincidentally, the rapper produced Paid in Full, which is based on a true story).
Ace (Wood Harris) fights the dealing urge with guts, grinning sheepishly and saying, “Naw, naw” when Mitch (Mekhi Phifer) comes around the cleaner’s with a new car what feels like every week. But it’s only the proverbial matter of time before Ace gets sucked into the life. A chance encounter with Lulu (Esai Morales) leaves him with the cocaine keys to the city, and Ace parlays his luck into an empire, discovering along the way that he likes the feel of fist-sized wads of cash in his pockets.
Mitch works as his second-in-command, but when his prison buddy, Rico (Cam’ron), arrives on the scene, things start to go sour. All of the things that usually happen in urban drug movies happen in this one — no surprises, no punches pulled, the requisite number of ’80s jokes — but Paid in Full remains enjoyable all the same.
Most of that is due to its protagonist. Harris, who spent the summer as drug lord Avon Barksdale in HBO’s series “The Wire,” plays a very different character here. Despite Avon and Ace’s shared occupation, it seems like there are 20 years separating them, and the fact that they’re played by the same guy makes each man’s realization that much more impressive. Harris’ portrayal of Ace’s transformation from dopey-clothed kid trying to make an honest buck to king of the snow-capped mountain is utterly believable.
What’s more, it’s compassionate — and you get the sense that, unlike his pals Mitch and Rico, Ace never feels totally comfortable covered in bling. Harris captures the internal struggle between wanting to do the right thing and live honest and having a different Mercedes for every day of the week, and how easy it is to get caught up in the game. But when the time comes for Ace to settle his accounts and get out, it’s perfectly feasible that he has enough sense to step back and see that his first instincts were the right ones: Green is a poor substitute for the people you love.
Erin Podolsky writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].