Set in Harlem in 1986, at the dawn of the crack cocaine era, Paid in Full could be the first hood nostalgia movie. It tells the bloody and episodic story of three drug dealers who are comrades and rivals at the same time. One by one, they become kingpins, making sick money as they flash their medallions and Rolexes, all at the expense of — say it loud! — their humanity.
Ace (Wood Harris), the pivotal figure, starts out as a straight, polite dude, trying to eke out a living at a dry cleaner. But when he gets a taste of the cash he can make divvying up kilos, he goes over to the dark side. If the movie had laid out the gradual process by which he got street-smart, it might have been fascinating. Ace, however, adapts to the underworld as easily as Clark Kent turns into Superman. ”Paid in Full” is a fake street drama that keeps telling you things instead of showing them, though Mekhi Phifer, playing a hustler who loves the life, is electric and true.