his is the stage,” says Ace (Wood Harris), as the camera pans a busy nighttime strip, girls in shimmery halter-tops grinning, shiny BMWs gliding. “If you was here, you was definitely somebody. And I was here… livin’ it.” To be here—Harlem, circa 1986—you had to have plenty of cash and nerve. Ace surely did but, as is often the case in movies about speedy rises to fame and fortune, he’s now looking back, looking for where it all went wrong.
As familiar as this story sounds (and is), Ace is hardly your usual somebody. This despite the fact that Paid In Full, the third film from Damon Dash and Jay-Z’s Roc-A-Fella Productions (following the lively concert documentary Backstage and the hackneyed gangsta tale State Property), includes elements that you’ve seen before, whether in old-school gangster movies or in relatively newer gangsta movies. Written by Matthew Cirulnick and Thulani Davis and directed by Charles Stone III (who made the ubiquitous Budweiser “Whassup” ads and whose next film, Drumline, is already generating good buzz), Paid In Full is based on a true-life story, already made into a documentary film, called Game Over (Part 1).
When Ace starts his story, he’s recalling it from the hospital, where he’s been wheeled in with a bullet in his head. He thinks back on his pre-dealing days, when he’s still called “Lucky,” a childhood name that he’ll soon be rejecting, when he feels unlucky because he’s started dealing.
At first, Ace has a regular job, delivering for a local dry cleaner (Chi McBride, a long way from his Principal Harper of Boston Public). Ace is appealing in a lanky, low-key way, almost eerily laid back. His boys are jumpier, in the way that “street” movie characters tend to be. Calvin (Kevin Carroll) is wily, ambitious, and aggressive, if shortsighted. Flashy Mitch (Mekhi Phifer) also falls for the allure of glitter, all wide smiles and fabulous riches: “Making money, that’s my style,” he boasts. For all their differences, though, Ace and Mitch are tight; he appreciates Mitch, a generous soul, with “love for everybody, I mean, everybody.” At the same time, Ace keeps his distance from the business, until Mitch is sent to prison. Only then does Ace step up, and then almost by accident. On one of his dry cleaning deliveries, he’s approached by Lulu (Esai Morales), who encourages him to sell cocaine (“This is the best product,” he insists), offering all kinds of payback (“With this money, your girl will suck your dick all day”). That the shy Ace does not yet have a girl is only a temporary situation.
Ace moves on up, quickly. And yet, no matter how fine the new ride or hectic the business, Ace remains cool. “Live and maintain,” he advises his minions. And even while he has a crew he trusts to hit street corners and sell product, he understands his position in specific as well as existential terms “I’m by myself in the game,” he observes, “just like Scarface.” Ace’s articulate—if measured—self-consciousness doesn’t make him special. Other movie-dealers have emulated movie-dealers: see Bishop/Tupac’s love for Jimmy Cagney, in Juice, and New Jack City‘s Nino Brown/Wesley Snipes’ admiration of the same, flamboyant Al Pacino Scarface Ace cites (Ace even takes to wearing jewelry reading “The world is yours”).
Still, Ace is different, in part because he does maintain a perversely calm affect. Unlike so many of his jittery, driven precursors, Ace appears to fall into his business because it comes up on him; he’s a dealer not because he pursues it, but because it’s convenient. And the reason it comes to him is its pervasiveness in the culture all around him, images that make the life look glamorous, or at least, tremendously exciting.
But Ace early on sees the costs of such imitation. While he’s selling cheaper, faster, and more than everyone else, he notes, “I was trippin’, all right.” He takes care of business, cautious and smart, spotting “corny motherfuckers” and never overreaching. He also sees the effects of drug addiction, in his own childhood home, where he’s still living for much of his kingpin career.
Betrayal rears its proverbially ugly head in the form of Mitch’s prison buddy, Rico (Roc artist Cam’Ron, making his film debut). The opposite of Ace, Rico is perpetually agitated, ruthless, and far too extravagant for Ace’s taste. He wears extravagant ice, beats down wayward customers and potential turf-steppers with only the slightest provocation, and makes sex tapes that he shows off at the local hangout: “That‘s how you fuck!” he exults as his image plays on the tv monitor over the bar: plainly, this guy will pay in full.
It’s good to learn lessons, no matter how late and even when the costs, for others and yourself, are unbearable. Ace’s final lessons are severe: not only is a close friend murdered, Ace himself is shot in the head and someone close to him is kidnapped. In the hospital, a doctor leans in, and urgently asks, “Who did this to you?” Ace lies on the gurney, bloodied, battered, and explicitly defenseless. No slouch in the morality tale department, he lays it out: “I did.” To the end, he understands that he’s on a stage, performing himself.