Harold Stallworth has an adulthood crush on LisaRaye McCoy.
E1 Entertainment’s buddy-crime flick, Envy, stars the unlikely duo of rapper Anthony “AZ” Cruz and pop singer William “Ray J” Norwood. Before its unceremonious straight-to-DVD release in 2009, the film was shelved for the better half of a decade. This dates the original taping all the way back to the height of G-Unit fever, an era that wasn’t particularly hospitable to AZ’s enlightened brand of verbose street rap. You have to imagine that the Brooklynite wasn’t turning down many checks circa 2004. Ray J, on the other hand, was a rising star that still had his best work ahead of him, namely his platinum single “Sexy Can I” and a viral sextape co-starring Kim Kardashian.
AZ and Ray J take on the roles of Caesar and AJ, respectively — two cousins waist-deep in Detroit’s ever-grisly, ever-lucrative narcotics trade. The story, which relies on cliché tropes of urban dilemma, could very well have been staged in any number of impoverished communities across the country. But the Midwest serves as a somewhat logical compromise between the leads’ suffocating coastal accents (AZ bears a distinct Yankee lisp and Ray J is a couple octaves shy of being a dead ringer for MC Eiht).
Urban-targeted films of this sort are generally in the business of casting recording artists, particularly rappers, as caricatures of their established on-wax personas. If nothing else, Envy is unique in its push to challenge its musicians-turned-thespians to really flex their acting chops. AZ has always fashioned himself as a civilized gangster, the type of strong-but-silent tough guy that prefers soft diplomacy over brute force. The character of Caesar, unfittingly enough, is an impulsive goon willing to stop at nothing to preserve his power on the streets. AJ is an impressionable teenager, intent on following in Caesar’s bloodthirsty footsteps — a far cry from the fun-loving goof Ray J portrays himself as on reality television.
AZ, at least within the context of this film, is a surprisingly convincing actor, making the best of an uninspired script. He nails a few memorable lines wedged into otherwise flat and forgettable fits of dialogue. Caesar at one point asks a rival drug dealer, rhetorically, whether he granted the man permission to “enter his kingdom.” In a subsequent scene, he presents his cousin AJ with one of his twin pistols, chuckles and says: “We’re like the Wonder Twins now.” Unfortunately, there’s not much beyond Caesar’s inherent badass-ness to appreciate here. Eventually, the plot devolves into a stale hodgepodge of SUV discourse and slow-motion strippers.
Somewhere about the third act, Caesar starts to contemplate his own mortality and adopts a more prudent temperament. It arrives around the same time AJ, now a high-ranking subordinate in his cousin’s flailing criminal empire, develops an insatiable thirst for sovereignty. Without giving it away, the movie ends on a cliff-hanging note, akin to The Sopranos or Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day” video, albeit far more muddled and contrived. At best, Envy is the third greatest title in AZ’s shallow filmography, ranking distantly behind his classic bit role in Belly and hosting of the Pimping Ain’t Easy edition of the ill-fated DipsexXx series.