Paid in Full takes place in the heart of Harlem, New York. It explores the culture of its citizens, trapped in a world of selling drugs in order to live large. Paid in Full doesn't glamorize the life of drug dealing and thug living, rather it reveals the true nature and true colors of a life better passed up on.
Ace (Wood Harris) is a young man who lives and works in the well known block of Harlem. He works at a dry cleaners, and watches from the store as his 'crew' drives by in fancy cars and wearing flashy clothes. Ace is a good guy with his head straight. He doesn't want to deal drugs like his homies, but he is eventually pushed into it. His best friend Mitch, (Mekhi Phifer) is also a good person, but he deals drugs. It's how he survives, and it's where he gets his power and how he is appreciated by his fans as he calls them.
What's interesting is that there's no long term goal for the drug pushers. Ace only ventures into the world in order to make more money, but never thinks about where it will take him. How long can you go on this path; how short can you go on this path? The more connections he makes, the more he must complete in the future.
This movie is powerful on many fronts. First-time director Charles Stone III took a well known story concept (Boyz N the Hood) and told it from a different playing field. What you see in the opening minutes occurs one year before the actual movie, set in the 1980's. And after seeing a minor piece of the ending, you can only anticipate how the events will eventually unfold.
Harlem isn't portrayed as a run-down and poverty stricken city controlled by riots. It's a community divided by the lowly, and the powerful. The powerful is where everyone strives to be, and that requires you to be a cocaine pusher. You truly see the dark side of drug dealing, and the transformation effects it has on the those who take part in it. Ace was once a normal guy holding a job, who turned into a professional thug, rubbing against the wrong people.
While it's dangerous to deal drugs for money, the gangs are close and treat each other like family. I've always admired how personal gang members are to each other, but their bond is so tight, that bodies often hit the ground resulting from it. It's how serious the business is, as well as how dangerous it is. Paid in Full gets that fact across clearly.
The acting is as convincing as ever, most notably the performance of Mekhi Phifer. Wood Harris is also outstanding, as well as some of the other gang members. Cam'ron, a true Harlem native, plays Rico, the loyal second-man to Mitch. There is a parallel that exists between the black gangs and the white mob. There is even a scene where the movie Scarface is being shown at the movie theater. It was good to see, although some critics felt it was necessary to compare two the movies. Not fair.
Paid in Full is brutally violent and often depressing. While there are some horrific scenes, it does get the message across without going overboard on the exploitation. It also doesn't hold back on the graphic language, but it's naturally spoken as if there were no scripts.
What's interesting is that most of the characters never do the drugs themselves. It is only dealt in business, and the only purpose it serves is to earn money. The cash is just as addicting as any drug, and determines how high up you are in the hierarchy. But the higher up you are, the harder it is to come down. The harder it is for you to get out.
I don't know what was more scary; that the business doesn't let you quit, or that most of those in it don't want to. They carry guns around like wallets, and appear to be on the top of the world. But you clearly see the opposite. Even the dealers with loads of money and expensive cars are too busy to enjoy them. When they aren't dodging bullets, they are serving jail time. When they aren't defending their territory, they're seeking revenge.
Unfortunately, this movie is getting very little recognition as a result of almost no advertising or publicity. It's a shame, because it deserves recognition as a movie that is unique from the usual 'use shock to demonstrate the life of blacks' films.
Paid in Full is a gritty drama that is dark until the end. There's one interesting twist director Stone implements into the theme of this movie. I think it's a message of how we are falsely told of black culture, but you may interpret it differently. Either way, it's something that hasn't been done before. Paid in Full wouldn't have been so compelling if it weren't acted so well, as the talented cast shined. Few movies are as strong as this one. It's based on a true story. If only it wasn't.