Review by C.J. Bunce
Only a year ago I called director Craig Brewer’s 2019 biopic Dolemite is My Name–the theatrical return of Eddie Murphy and Wesley Snipes from Netflix–the big Oscar miss of the year. It begged the question: When was the last time Murphy and Snipes were this good, and why did they ever leave the top spot on marquees of movie houses everywhere? Brewer is back again with Murphy and Snipes, this time in a sequel to director John Landis’s quirky 1988 comedy Coming to America, a two-time Oscar nominee for costumes and one of Rick Baker’s makeup nominations for turning Murphy and co-star Arsenio Hall into a host of characters, a box office success that gained favor over the years thanks to video rental stores, and today it’s a nostalgic trip back to the 1980s. The sequel Coming 2 America is a big surprise: a big budget marvel not from Netflix but Amazon Studios, a thoughtful, funny, surprisingly deep sequel we didn’t know we wanted, and a result that is even better than the original. More than “just another sequel,” it’s a fairy tale like The Princess Diaries, a bit A Knight’s Tale, a bit Crazy Rich Asians, and a worthy sequel in concept and art design to Black Panther. It’s also a celebration of the career and characters of Eddie Murphy, and it expands to be a celebration of black culture and comedic films via dozens of great Easter eggs. In short, it’s one of the best direct-to-television movies since studios started moving from movie houses to home screens.
Coming 2 America is big in scope, because it has much to accomplish. At its core it’s a sweet, more than worthy follow-up to Coming to America, with more partnering and antics from Murphy’s Prince Akeem and Arsenio Hall as his majordomo Semmi. Quickly audiences will notice this isn’t the normal quick effort at a sequel, pulling in some creators from the Marvel films, as the production design snaps-to with fantastic sets from the likes of Jefferson Sage, Douglas Mowat, Kristen Sherwin, and Thomas Valentine, a sweeping musical score from Jermaine Stegall, and masterpiece costume work from Ruth E. Carter, who won the Oscar for her work on Black Panther. Are these costumes just as good as she dazzled us with in Black Panther, or are they even better? Basically director Craig Brewer took a film that gathered dust for more than three decades on the shelves along with Crocodile Dundee and Arthur 2 and made a movie that might as well be a stand-in for Black Panther 2–in fact it’s improbable Black Panther 2 won’t be borrowing much from this film, especially if the king’s sister steps forward to lead.
The seemingly ageless Eddie Murphy has his best leading role and best performance since… well… since Dolemite–he gets better with age—conjuring the comedian, singer, and actor of his past to play the characters from the first film including Clarence, Saul, and Randy Watson, with Arsenio Hall reprising his characters, too. Sometimes he goes all out, getting loud and crazy and in character with his zany bits; other times the elder thespian is reserved and stately, letting his calmness speak the greatest. One scene showcases familiar blast from the past bands, several asides and dropped jokes reference too many black characters and celebrities (President Obama, James Brown, Forest Whitaker, Neil deGrasse Tyson…) to count, and we see nods to other big Murphy movies, like Trading Places and vestiges of Murphy’s Saturday Night Live days. Actors from the original are back, too (sorry, no Samuel L. Jackson), including Shari Headley as Akeem’s wife Lisa, James Earl Jones as the king, John Amos as his father-in-law, and Louie Anderson as Maurice. Even Duke & Duke (who jumped into the original film in 1988 from Trading Places) get a quick cameo of sorts.
The “passing of the torch” is that 2010s trope that shows no signs of leaving in the 2020s, especially in sequels. That’s happening here, too, and it’s certainly the through-line for this plot, but so much is happening it doesn’t bog down all the fun. Murphy’s Akeem needs a male heir in his Wakanda-esque nation of Zamunda. Neighboring leader from Nextdoria, Snipes’ charismatic lead dance-warrior General Izzy (son of a colonel from the first movie), has designs on joining the nations, including marrying his son off to Akeem’s daughter Meeka (psst, that’s Akeem backward), an intelligent kick-ass warrior of the Okoye/Nakia/Shuri variety played by KiKi Layne. But she’s not interested. Akeem learns he has a bastard son back in America from his visit to Queens back in the 1980s (as revealed with some good film splicing and brief de-aging). The son is a good combination of Cinder-fella and cool in his own right, an achiever named Lavelle who is down on his luck, played by Jermaine Fowler. One of Murphy’s eight children, Bella, plays one of his daughters, and the other is played by Akiley Love (sharp-eyed viewers may spot other Murphy daughters in background roles).
The biggest laughs come from the new cast, all perfect additions that slide into their roles like they’d always been there. Leslie Jones is a scream as Lavelle’s crude mom. Tracy Morgan is back in prime form like he never left as Lavelle’s streetwise uncle, who has plenty of opportunities to spar with Hall’s uptight Semmi. John Amos delivers another fatherly performance. Nomzamo Mbatha is a newcomer who has a key role but doesn’t get a lot of screen-time, playing Lavelle’s barber. The camaraderie audiences witnessed in Dolemite and in those barber shops in Do the Right Thing and Marvel’s Luke Cage is back again. Morgan Freeman. En Vogue. Salt ‘n’ Pepa. Gladys Knight. Trevor Noah (listen closely for James Earl Jones twisting his “This is CNN” bit for Noah’s ZNN). Stick around through the credits for more fun.
Do you miss theater-worthy movies? Watch Coming 2 America now, streaming exclusively on Amazon Prime.