Dame Dash's saving grace has always been his ability to spot talent. This is the man who believed in Jay Z before most—before Roc-A-Fella became an empire. Dash also saw Kanye West's ability as a rapper while many only wanted him for his immaculate batch of beats. In 2002, Dash did it again, letting then-23-year-old comedian Kevin Hart star in the fourth Roc-A-Fella Films release, the robbery comedy Paper Soldiers.
While Kevin Hart played Luke in a few episodes of Judd Apatow's Fox series Undeclared (which is credited as being Hart's true big break), Hart's stand-up career (which started in the late 1990s) hadn't really taken off. He was far from becoming one of the six comedians to sell out Madison Square Garden, with a style that's on full display in his upcoming stand-up film What Now?. At that time, he was just a 5'5" hilarious individual who Dash must have known could pull off the role of Shawn in Paper Soldiers, which was surprisingly written as a drama. If you've seen the movie, you know that Paper Soldiers is a lot of things; viable drama is not one of them.
In Paper Soldiers, Shawn is down on his luck, on parole, and working at a beeper store. While he lives with the mother of his child, he's not above trying macking on other girls, like Tamika, played by Stacey Dash, who appears to be in the film just to walk in slow-motion. After his mother dies, he has to find a way to properly provide for his family, which leads to a life of grand theft. Throughout the film, while we see him build a rep as a thief, he never really graduates past the level of "shook guy who's brave enough to break into someone's house." With a string of break-ins being tracked by the police (one of whom is played by Charlie Murphy), as well as violent guys like Stu (Beanie Siegel) making life uncomfortable for Shawn, it's only a matter of time before he gets caught up.
It's totally fair to group Paper Soldiers into the list of hood flicks that collect dust in the bargain bins of a Wal-Mart. If you've seen past Roc-A-Fella flicks like State Property, you have a general idea of a weak (but memorable) plot with big personality rappers who aren't really actors; hell, everyone from Angie Martinez to Lil' Cease have roles in Paper Soldiers. The glue to the film is Kevin Hart's performance, though. As Shawn, he nailed the role of a guy who grew up in the street and is close to being broke as hell. Even if he's in too deep, you get his motivation—he's out here trying to make sure the lights aren't getting shut off. And while he ends up making all of the wrong decisions in the film, those of us who aren't about that street life can relate to his real-world panic when situations go left. Instead of trying to fight Dame Dash and Memphis Bleek when they pull guns on him, Shawn immediately breaks down in tears. It's a side of that life you rarely ever see, and based on Kevin's performance, adds something extra to the film that traditional straight-to-DVD hood tales lack: a sense of depth.
The same can be seen in Hart's stand-up, which works best when he plays off of his shortcomings (no pun intended) in life. We clearly should have been paying more attention to Paper Soldiers, because Hart's starpower, and ability to communicate to an audience, is on display. As well as his natural comedic instincts—just watch the scene where Charlie Murphy slaps Hart and he in turn cries over not being able to move his mouth. Or how quickly he goes from wanting to sell drugs to crying about how "God is so good" when Cam'ron's gun jams after murdering their supplier (who is portrayed by Patrice O'Neill in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo). There aren't too many comedians who could pull off that kind of timing and make it feel human, and in Paper Soldiers, you see early glimpses of Kevin Hart's bread and butter, which he employed in Central Intelligence to the tune of $216 million at the box office.
Would Kevin Hart have become the multi-millionaire comedian that's struck cinema gold with his association with The Rock if he hadn't been in Paper Soldiers? It's possible, but for the relatable groundwork he laid within the black community via his early work with Roc-A-Fella (which also stretched into their 2003 film, Death of a Dynasty), it's hard to believe that Hollywood would have seen Hart as being a bankable actor for the future.