(director: Charles Stone III; screenwriters: Matthew Cirulnick/Thulani Davis; cinematographer: Paul Sarossy; editors: Bill Pankow/Patricia Bowers; music: Vernon Reid/Frank Fitzpatrick; cast: Wood Harris (Ace), Melchi Phifer (Mitch), Esai Morales(Lulu), Kevin Carroll (Calvin), Cam’ron (Rico), Chi McBride (Pip), Regina Hall(Kiesha), Ron Cephas Jones (Ice), Joyce Walker (Janet Woods), Cynthia Martels (Dora), Elise Neal (Aunt June), Remo Greene (Sonny); Runtime: 97; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Jay-Z/Damon Dash/Brett Ratner; Dimension Films; 2012)

“Though it shows bling, strong feelings for the inner city and the acting is solid, the derivative story won’t knock you out.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The feature film directorial debut of Charles Stone III(“Drumline”/”Lila & Eve”), noted for his “Wassup” Budweiser ads, is a supposed true story that plays out as a morality tale about drugs being just another business only one that happens to be illegal and life-threatening. There are tough guys, shoot-outs, cursing, and volatile gang rivalries to keep the action in full-blast. It’s unexceptionally written by Matthew Cirulnick and Thulani Davis, as it tells the dreary tale of Harlem drug dealers in the 1980s. The hero is a young innocent lured into the life of crime because of circumstances, more than anything else.

In 1986 Ace (Wood Harris) is a deliveryman in a Harlem dry cleaners, who is an honest worker for the boss Pip (Chi McBride). While Ace lives a modest life, the drug dealers in the area lead a flashy life. One day in the pants of a sophisticated foreign drug lord named Lulu (Esai Morales), he discovers a rock of cocaine and returns it. The drug dealer hooks him up in the business as a reward. When Ace’s sister’s loudmouth drug dealer boyfriend Calvin (Kevin Carroll) goes to prison, Ace takes over his turf. When his longtime friend Mitch (Mekhi Phifer), a major drug player in Harlem, is sent to prison, Ace takes over his territory. Meanwhile Ace dates Mitch’s sister Kiesha (Rebecca Hall), and tries to adjust to life as a big-time drug dealer.

When Mitch’s pal from prison, the loose cannon Rico (Cam’ron, real-life rapper) is released and is back in Harlem, he becomes a soldier for Ace. Soon Kevin and Mitch are also released and are working for Ace, who takes over the Harlem turf for Lulu when he’s killed. But there are rumblings from Kevin, Rico and Mitch’s untrustworthy hateful free-loader relative Ice (Ron Cephas Jones), who want a bigger slice of the pie. Thereby Ace’s empire comes tumbling down, as the unhappy campers wage a violent war of betrayal against his organization and the streets are filled with blood.

The moral of the gritty urban drama seems to be that crime doesn’t pay, and is the wrong way to fulfill the American Dream.

Though it shows bling, strong feelings for the inner city and the acting is solid, the derivative story won’t knock you out.

It’s a drug genre movie that shows its love for Al Pacino’s Scarface as the Mother of all cocaine films. But, for all its pretenses to be a level-headed pic pining for those who go legit, it will not convince its target audience that the high-living drug lords are not cooler than the legit squares.