Drug money flowed like water across Harlem in the 1980s as a generation embraced cocaine and turned a small posse of dealers into local superstars.
Director Charles Stone III looks at the first heady years of that modern-day Gold Rush, before greed and violence roared into town with hurricane force, in a nuanced, intimate film, "Paid in Full."
Based on a story by A.Z., a former drug lord, "Paid in Full" follows three of those kingpins: Ace (Wood Harris), his best friend, Mitch (Mekhi Phifer), and Mitch's business partner, Rico (the rapper Cam'ron, in his film debut).
Chronicling the almost accidental way in which each fell into the drug trade and was violently ejected from it, "Paid in Full" resonates as a history of Harlem's anti-Renaissance, a time of intoxication with hot red convertibles, heavy gold chains, flashy Rolexes and full-length minks.
It was a time of contrasts and irony, a time of hardworking families pitching in to sell drugs together.
A great deal of the film's appeal comes from the unvarnished performances of Harris and Phifer as two friends who gradually lose their moral compass.
Ace watches with envy as Mitch becomes a star in the neighborhood. While Ace is delivering dry cleaning, Mitch is peddling heroin, raking in the dough and basking in the respect of his peers.
"C'mon, let's go be stars," Mitch says as they enter a Harlem nightclub.
That all changes when Mitch goes to prison for a drug-related murder.
Ace hooks up with a Colombian drug lord he met at the cleaners (Esai Morales), then hits the streets with a better business plan: sell a good product for less. Customers flock in and Ace soon has captured the market.
Mitch gets out and brings prison buddy Rico into the business with Ace. But Rico is a hothead, quick with the trigger, boastful and flashy, a magnet for the police. Ace is a quiet, conservative businessman. The trio is not going to last.
Stone does a fine job of capturing the giddy '80s atmosphere and allowing the audience to sympathize with characters who typically would be the bad guys. Best known for his "Whassup" Budweiser commercials, "Paid in Full" is his directorial feature debut.
Harris - who has starred in the HBO series "The Wire" and the film "Remember the Titans" - brings a quiet, cautious, even shy demeanor to his drug lord. Phifer, who starred in 2001's "O" and will play across from Eminem next month in the rapper's film debut "8 Mile," is luminous as the emotionally needy Mitch.
After racing around Harlem in a new Saab convertible, packing heat and drugs, and carrying $5,000 wads of cash held together by rubber bands, Mitch goes home to his mother's ratty apartment, where he shares a bedroom with his younger brother.
There's no room for a dresser, so he folds his expensive clothes and places them carefully on a shelf, lays thousands of dollars worth of jewelry next to his radio and climbs into a narrow twin bed.
This is the big man of Harlem?
"If I leave, are the fans still going to love me?" Mitch asks Ace as competitors start to target their families. "I get love on these streets, man."
Not for long you don't.
Released by Dimension Films, "Paid in Full" runs 93 minutes and is rated R for violence, language, strong sexuality and drug content. Three stars out of four.