Paid in Full (2002)

“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, Ace is hardly your usual “somebody.” And Paid In Full is not a standard issue dealer movie, featuring strong performances, a shrewd narrative structure, and subtle, smart resistance to stereotypes. Though it had only a brief theatrical run, the film possesses uncommon integrity and intelligence. This despite and perhaps because of 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), is so recognizable. Using elements from old-school gangster movies or more recent gangsta movies, Paid In Full brings an original perspective. Written by Matthew Cirulnick and Thulani Davis, and directed by Charles Stone III (who made Budweiser’s “Whassup” ads and the witty Drumline), Paid In Full is based on a true-life story, one already made into a documentary film, called Game Over (Part 1).

Stone provides commentary on Dimension’s new DVD of Paid In Full, and while it’s the only “extra” on the disc, it is well worth the price of admission. Stone is not only a gifted filmmaker and writer; he’s also engagingly sharp in assessing the film he’s made. His commentary doesn’t only recall what happened on which day of shooting (or how producer Damon Dash served as “reality police” on the set); it also helpfully reveals his thinking process, how he established the characters as if playing a kind of “game of Monopoly,” or how he wanted Ace to be revealed not by speaking, but by “surreal images and visions to show his point of view of the world around him and how it’s changing.” Still, he adds, “Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to do as much of the sort of surreal imagery as I wanted… Then again, there’s always this balance, this tension between realism and surrealism, a constant fight between Damon and myself, which worked out pretty well, in the long run.”

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. Even while he trusts his crew 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, for instance, Bishop/Tupac’s love for Jimmy Cagney in Juice, and New Jack City‘s Nino Brown’s admiration for Al Pacino’s Scarface, whom Ace also cites. As if to up the referential ante, Ace takes to wearing jewelry reading “The world is yours.”

And yet, Ace is distinctive in compelling ways. He’s slightly less sanguine and self-hating than so many of his jittery, driven precursors. His perversely calm affect makes him seem more complicated, more broadly emblematic, a nice enough guy who 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, the most obvious way to make money and earn respect in his neighborhood. And it comes to him precisely because it is pervasive in the culture all around him, which is rife with images that make the life look glamorous, or at least, tremendously exciting.

By contrast but also in correlation with the world of dealers, where repetition is always destructive, Stone observes in his DVD commentary, “Ace is a boring character.” This is, in large part, what makes Paid In Full an unusual movie, that it refuses to invest its “hero” with conventional pizzazz. Stone also describes the differences between Ace and Mitch, as they meet early in the film, on the basketball court. Mitch, he observes, drives up on his “motorcycle, his chariot, he’s got the gold, the Rolex. Mitch here is trying to enroll him into that world, but Ace does everything on his own terms.” For a while, anyway.

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 clever, 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. As Stone observes on the DVD, Ace’s perspective, what he sees, is literally represented in the film’s many internal frames, Ace “peering through windows,” then flipped, viewed through windows, to show Ace as a “player in that world.”

Betrayal (inevitably) emerges in the form of Mitch’s prison buddy, Rico (Roc artist Cam’Ron, who brings serious electricity). 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: obviously, 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 — and points out — that he’s on a stage, performing himself.