Like a blind date who starts off the evening by making a self-deprecating joke, the sequel to Eddie Murphy’s 1988 smash-hit comedy Coming to America takes pains to deflect the most obvious criticism that might come its way.
“American cinema is the best,” a character declares at one point in the unimaginatively titled Coming 2 America. “The best?” another responds skeptically. “What do we have besides superhero shit, remakes and sequels to old movies nobody asked for?”
Of course, that assessment won’t stop millions of viewers from tuning in to this long-belated follow-up premiering on Amazon Prime Video. Shifted to the streaming service after its planned theatrical run was canceled due to the pandemic, the film will easily capitalize on the lingering nostalgic affection for one of Murphy’s most successful efforts, even if the original isn’t nearly as funny as you might remember. Of course, sequels to Murphy’s hits have always been spotty, as evidenced by the likes of Another 48 Hrs., Beverly Hills Cop II and III, Dr. Dolittle 2 and Nutty Professor II: The Klumps.
Less a sequel than a remake featuring a younger actor going through the same narrative paces as Murphy in the original, Coming 2 America includes so many nods to its predecessor that it feels like a feature-length Easter egg in search of a movie. Murphy and Arsenio Hall reprise their roles as Prince Akeem of Zamunda and his trusted associate Semmi, who once again journey to America — specifically, Queens, New York. This time they’re in search of Akeem’s heretofore unknown “bastard son,” Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler), whose identity has been revealed by the ailing King Joffer (90-year-old James Earl Jones, deservedly taking it easy by delivering most of his performance in bed).
Akeem, who shortly thereafter ascends to the throne, seeks a male heir in deference to royal tradition, which irks his wife, Lisa (Shari Headley), and eldest daughter, Meeka (KiKi Layne), who feels she deserves the honor. Meanwhile, Akeem’s longstanding rival, General Izzi (Wesley Snipes, clearly enjoying the opportunity to showcase his comedic chops), plots to marry off his son, Idi (Rotimi), to Meeka as a power move.
The rudimentary storyline proves merely an excuse to recycle familiar beats, especially Murphy and Hall’s latex-slathered turns as a variety of supporting characters both old (the barbershop gang, including Murphy’s elderly Jew) and new (Hall as wizened royal advisor Baba).
Traveling to Zamunda at Akeem’s behest, Lavelle brings along his scheming mother (Leslie Jones) and uncle (Tracy Morgan), who adjust all too easily to the luxuries of royal life. Meanwhile, Lavelle, rather than succumbing to the physical charms of General Izzi’s sensual daughter, Bopoto (Teyana Taylor) in a proposed arranged marriage, falls in love with his hairstylist, Mirembe (Nomzamo Mbatha). As in the first film, true love triumphs over royal manipulations, although here a strongly feminist theme has been added.
Coming 2 America seems so intent on stirring up feelings of déjà vu —from the frequent use of clips from the first film to the presence of such familiar faces as John Amos and Louie Anderson — that its air of recycling proves overwhelming. Director Craig Brewer, who previously worked with Murphy to far greater effect on Dolemite Is My Name, makes no effort to provide a distinctive stamp to the by-the-numbers script by Kenya Barris, Barry W. Blaustein and David Sheffield, instead relying on Murphy and Hall to carry out their patented comic schtick. But neither lead performer is given much to do, with both relegated to the sidelines for long stretches of screen time and Murphy coasting on his megawatt charm. And while Fowler proves an appealing comic actor, he’s unable to bring much vibrancy to the formulaic goings-on.
Much of the film’s fun, though, stems from the celebrity cameos — including Morgan Freeman amusingly sending up his godlike narrator image and Trevor Noah as a “ZNN” anchor — and musical performances by the vintage likes of En Vogue, Salt-N-Pepa and Gladys Knight, the last riffing on one of her biggest hits with a rendition of “Midnight Train From Zamunda.”
There are also visual delights to spare, from the lavish palace setting (actually the Georgia mansion of rapper Rick Ross) to the gorgeous, eye-popping costumes by Oscar winner Ruth E. Carter (Black Panther) to the elaborately choreographed dance numbers. But as the predictable inclusion of outtakes during the end credits demonstrates, Coming 2 America looks like it was more fun to make than to watch.
Production companies: Eddie Murphy Productions, Misher Films, New Republic Pictures, Paramount Pictures
Distributor: Amazon Prime Video
Cast: Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall, Jermaine Fowler, Leslie Jones, Tracy Morgan, KiKi Layne, Shari Headley, Wesley Snipes, James Earl Jones, John Amos, Teyana Taylor, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Paul Bates, Nomzamo Mbatha
Director: Craig Brewer
Screenwriters: Kenya Barris, Barry W. Blaustein, David Sheffield
Producer: Kevin Misher
Executive producers: Brian Oliver, Bradley Fischer, Valerii An, Kenya Barris, Charisse Hewitt-Webster, Michele Imperato Stabile, Andy Berman
Director of photography: Joe “Jody” Williams
Production designer: Jefferson Sage
Editors: David S. Clark, Billy Fox, Debra Neil-Fisher
Composer: Jermaine Stegall
Costume designer: Ruth E. Carter
Casting: Leah Daniels Butler, George Pierre
Rated PG-13, 110 minutes