EVEN THOUGH "Paid in Full" rounds up most of the gangsta-flick cliches, it does have some original touches.

Based on the true stories of 1980s drug dealers AZ, Alpo and Rich Porter (also featured in the docudrama "Game Over"), the movie's about the rise and fall of three friends, all of whom resort to drug dealing to get by.

Wood Harris is Alpo, aka "Lucky," a shy dry cleaner's assistant in Harlem, who watches from a safe distance as his smooth friend Rich (Mekhi Phifer) makes a killing in the drug trade.

When Rich gets busted and thrown into the pen, there's a void on the street. Lucky, who befriends a sophisticated Puerto Rican dealer (Esai Morales), takes over -- merely to keep his neighborhood happy. He becomes an immediate success by under-cutting the competition. In no time, he's the top cocaine street retailer in his area.

Also in the mix is AZ (Cam'ron), who's slavishly devoted to Rich but whose short, almost psychotic temper and in-public bravado mark him from the start as big trouble. In Rich's absence, AZ emerges as a menacing rival. When Rich returns from jail, the original three-man friendship is threatened.

Directed by Charles Stone III, who made those Budweiser "whassup?" commercials, "Paid in Full" has few surprises, in terms of story. Essentially, it's "Once Upon a 'New Jack City.' "

But the direction has a fluid, no-nonsense authority, and the performances by Harris, Phifer and Cam'ron seal the deal. Harris is surprisingly affecting as Lucky. Vulnerable, awkward and full of genuine sympathy for the people in his corner of the world, he's the nicest dealer you could ever hope to meet upon rolling down your car window. But if there's more to be said about this movie than that, you won't find it here.

PAID IN FULL (R, 93 minutes) -- Contains (duh) violence, obscenity, drug use and sexual content. Area theaters.

Mekhi Phifer at the wheel, with Wes "Maestro" Williams at his side and Wood Harris along for the ride in "Paid in Full."