`Paid,' yes, but actors still short- changed

Movie Reviews

October 25, 2002|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Paid In Full

Rated R; Sun score: 1/2

Paid In Full comes with the best of intentions and, as a cautionary tale for anyone who believes drug dealing can lead to anything worthwhile, it's first-rate. First-time director Charles Stone III leaves little to the imagination when it comes to both the transience and the hollowness of the drug lifestyle - not only are drug dealers doomed to extinction, but the high lifestyle they seem to enjoy isn't all that great to begin with.

Wood Harris (HBO's The Wire) is Ace, a Harlem kid in the early-'80s who's managed to steer clear of the drug culture that's just started to take over his neighborhood streets, thanks to his job at a local dry cleaners and the strong father-figure who works as his boss.

But the lure of easy money is strong, especially when his best friend, Mitch (Mekhi Phifer), is one of those charismatic drug dealers who makes the life seem so much more glamorous than it is. Ace's fate is sealed when he stumbles onto a stash of cocaine belonging to the local rep of a Colombian drug lord; soon, Ace becomes the place for the local cocaine trade, and the easy money starts flowing.

But so do the bad vibes, and it isn't long before Ace's life becomes one piece of bad news after another.

Matthew Cirulnick and Thulani Davis' script (based on events in the life of a Harlem drug dealer named A.Z.) plays as a sort-of Harlem version of Scarface - not the 1932 original, but the 1983 remake, with Al Pacino as a poor kid from Cuba whose life gets caught in a maelstrom of drugs and cash. The movie even contains a scene where Ace and his friends watch Scarface at the local cinema, and - contrary to the reaction of most people, who found little to emulate in the character of Tony Montana - find everything in the film cool beyond words.

But to Paid In Full's credit, very little seems glamorous about its world; even the neighborhood's high rollers - like Mitch, who toss around wads of $100 bills like most people toss around tissues - still live in two-room apartments where the height of glamour is a shiny pair of tennis shoes.

It's too bad the film's narrative isn't as strong as its message. Characters tend to move in and out of the film with little thought (the female characters, especially, are dispensable), and there's a jarring moment when Ace unexpectedly begins to provide a narration, as though the filmmakers suddenly realized they had some explaining to do.

Still, Paid In Full's performances - especially by the always-engaging Phifer - are strong, its message worthwhile and its sincerity doubtless.

Ghost Ship

Rated R; Sun score:

Ghost Ship would have been so much better if they'd just let the ship do more of the acting.

Set on a derelict ocean liner that's been adrift for nearly four decades, Ghost Ship is the tale of a salvage crew that decides to tow the rotting hulk back to port. But there are unsuspected forces on board, ghosts of the passengers and crew who met a grisly end those many years ago (in an incident that shows one of the advantages of being short).

These souls are not happy, and for reasons that don't become clear until the last reel - if even then - they're determined to keep this salvage crew from getting off the ship alive.

The strong cast, including Julianna Margulies (channeling Alien's Sigourney Weaver), Gabriel Byrne, Isaiah Washington and Ron Eldard, do what they can. But it's all in service to a movie where the scares are strictly ho-hum (lots of flowing blood and rotting corpses), and to a plot that's way too complicated for its own good.

If only the filmmakers realized what they had to begin with: seven people, traipsing about a ghost ship that no one's seen for nearly 40 years. Who needs a grafted-on supernatural element to make that a scenario fraught with terror?

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