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Three dealers' grim descent

October 25, 2002|Jan Stuart | Newsday

The three young men sit around a small empire of Chinese takeout boxes, blithely tossing wads of cash onto the table like so much Monopoly money. With this kind of dough, they could buy the restaurant they've just ordered from. But why settle for another Chinese food joint when you can have black Saab convertibles, gold pendants and the unalloyed devotion of every crack cocaine addict in the neighborhood?

File this little Kodak moment away in your memory, because it is one of the few oases of communal peace in "Paid in Full," a grim, road-to-perdition journey through the drug trade of 1980s Harlem. In a short while, these three amigos will pull the rug out from one another with a brutality that strikes us as a very high price to pay for a jazzy car and a carton of spareribs. And that's the point. Based on the exploits of A.Z., Alpo and Richard Porter, a trio of young drug traders who have been mythologized by rap-artist contemporaries, Charles Stone III's muscular directing debut reads like a warning salvo aimed at anyone with misbegotten dreams of living large in Drugville.

"Paid in Full" is nothing if not stylish and authentic, but we're not always sure why we are watching it. Although it has all the moral underpinnings of the genre (there is a nod to Brian DePalma's "Scarface"), it neglects to make us care for two of its notorious trio. Actors Mekhi Phifer and Rico Cam'ron lend shape and intensity to their characters, Mitchell and Rico, but they come off as supporting players in the downfall of Harlem teenager Ace (Wood Harris, in a quietly commanding performance).

"Paid in Full" is a freefall into urban hell that doesn't give us the impetus to jump or the awful gratification of the ride.

"Paid in Full": Rating: R for violence, pervasive language, some strong sexuality and drug content. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes. In general release.


--Jan Stuart, Newsday

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