Anchoring the film with quiet, awkward intensity is Wood Harris as Ace, a young man marking time in 1986 Harlem by working as a dry cleaning deliveryman. Ace refuses to follow in the footsteps of his friend Mitch (Mekhi Phifer), a crack dealer whose vocation allows him to drive expensive cars while flashing the large, toothy grin of a man convinced that the money will never stop flowing. All that changes when Ace meets an upscale distributor named Lulu (Esai Morales), who accidentally leaves a rock of cocaine in his pants pocket, which Ace finds and eventually sells. After Mitch is sent to jail, Ace moves in on his turf, undercutting the competition and rising to the top of Harlem's drug dealing elite. In one of many cinematic parallels to Martin Scorsese's "Goodfellas," there is a psychotic, trigger-happy henchman, here named Rico (rapper Cam'Ron, making a solid film debut). A murderous puppy dog who spices up parties by showing videos of himself having sex, Rico has his own ideas on how to make a killing in the drug trade. Like countless other films of this type, Ace, an innocent lured into a life of crime by the promise of money and respect, pays the price for his criminal activities.
"Paid in Full" is directed with no particular flair by Stone, best known for the "Whassup" commercials for Budweiser beer. The film tends toward darker (sometimes too dark) hues and there is hardly a wide shot or establishing shot to be found, which makes the movie a bit claustrophobic. Considering the subject matter, the film is only occasionally bloody, a much-appreciated aesthetic that forces the viewer to concentrate on character, not gunplay. Based on a true story, this Reagan era tale admirably does not look for scapegoats: The characters either dig their own graves or earn their redemption. Still, "Paid in Full" walks a well-traveled cinematic path with no surprises, which threatens to make the movie completely superfluous. However, for a rapsploitation film to target and frown upon the darker forces of its nature is certainly a good sign for the maturation of the genre. "Paid in Full" is only a small step in that process, but it's a step nonetheless. Starring Wood Harris, Regina Hall, Kevin Carroll, Esai Morales, Cam'Ron, Chi McBride and Mekhi Phifer. Directed by Charles Stone III. Written by Matthew Cirulnick and Thulani Davis. Produced by Damon Dash, Shawn Carter and Brett Ratner. A Dimension release. Rated R for violence, pervasive language, some strong sexuality and drug content. Running time: 93 min