Paid in Full (2002)

Cynthia Fuchs

As familiar as this story sounds (and is), Ace is hardly your usual somebody.

Paid in Full

Director: Charles Stone III
Cast: Wood Harris, Mekhi Phifer, Cam'ron, Chi McBride, Esai Morales, Elise Neal, Regina Hall
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Dimension Films
First date: 2002
US Release Date: 2002-10-25

"This 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.

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.