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Nostalgia has been fuelling Hollywood productions for decades, with major film studios and several once-bankable stars counting on the truth that everything that once was old can simply be considered new, again. And we have more than enough examples now at our disposal to prove that popular movie franchises and beloved characters can be revived for a fitting go-around, so long as the new project honors its roots and justifies its existence. Bad Boys for Life, to use a recent example, satisfied fans of the series because it tapped into the deep pool of chemistry shared between Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, hired two co-directors who could mimic Michael Bay’s manic visual style, and gave the characters an actual case worthy of a sequel. There was good reason to blow the dust off of the Bad Boys property.
Coming 2 America, a comedy sequel several years in the making, won’t leave you as satisfied because it only addresses a portion of the above equation. It’s been 33 years since Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall brought Zamundan royalty from the tundras of Africa to the mean streets of Queens (so long, it seems, that this sequel actually plays a montage of scenes from the original comedy while a side character recalls the story of Prince Akeem, as if anyone’s watching Coming 2 America without having seen the original). But time has not been kind, and this tepid attempt to rekindle our interest in the series limps along on a rotating cycle of “Remember this?” gags and too-serious subplots involving Akeem’s expanded family members and the possibility of a military takeover that no one outside of Zamunda will care about.
The jokes in Coming 2 America are recycled from the original, but also neutered.
Original Coming to America director John Landis knew how to mine Murphy’s edgy comic talents, having worked with the megastar on Trading Places five years earlier, and inserted the defiantly confident standup comedian into a charming fish-out-of-water story about a pampered African royal who escapes to New York City to sow his wild oats. Murphy was an enormous box-office draw when Coming to America dropped, having had massive hits with 48 Hours, Beverly Hills Cop, and its sequel. Coming to America cemented his status as a comedic film icon while marking the beginning of another quirky trick in the actor’s arsenal -- his desire to play multiple roles in the same film by using layers of makeup and Rick Baker’s practical effects.
It’s hard for any movie to be as funny as the original Coming to America, and twice as difficult for a sequel to fill its predecessors shoes. Replacement director Craig Brewer chooses to recycle a fair share of the same jokes from the original film, but also water them down by adhering to a PG-13 rating. We revisit the classic barbershop, where Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall play multiple members of the trash-talking crew who were old as dirt when we met them, and haven’t aged much in three decades. Hall also gets to play his sexist minister Reverend Brown, and Murphy shimmies back into the tight suit of lounge singer Randy Watson.
You smile, because you remember when these gags were funny, but nothing happens in THIS movie to make them funny again. The comedy really is woefully unfunny, with the scattered attempts at humor falling extremely flat. I don’t want to chalk this up to the rating, because it should be incredibly easy for a good comedy to generate laughs with swearing. Take Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar. That’s one of the funniest movies to come out in recent memory, and it’s PG-13. But there is something jarring about seeing a sequel to what was an edgy and R-rated comedy play it extremely safe in order to maintain its audience-friendly rating. “I am the MF-ing king!” Murphy yells at one point, and I winced, thinking how effortlessly this genius used to work the F-word into a sentence.
The story used to set up Coming 2 America is weak.
There was a moment in Coming 2 America when I thought the sequel was going to pull a clever card from its sleeve to backdoor explain why the sequel was happening. The main plot revolves around Prince Akeem (Murphy) lacking a male heir as his father, King Jaffe Joffer (James Earl Jones), prepares to die. Akeem claims he has only been with one woman, Lisa (Shari Headley), only we are told that isn’t the case. I wondered if the four credited screenwriters found a line of dialogue or a mention from the original movie that could lead to the potential of a bastard heir.
Alas, no. The movie instead recreates scenes that didn’t happen in Coming to America so this sequel can introduce former Saturday Night Live co-star Leslie Jones as a one-night stand for the prince. It’s lame. It’s a toothpick-thin plot setup that the entire sequel rests on, and you all but have to accept it, no matter how ridiculous it feels. And it prompts a plot reversal that means Coming 2 America strips away the funniest parts of the original film -- Akeem and Semmi interacting with Americans -- in favor of a story that rests on the younger generation. I honestly fear that many tuning in for more adventures with Akeem won’t care nearly as much about where this movie goes.
Once the baton in Coming 2 America gets passed off, interest quickly fades.
Suitable jokes would ease a lot of Coming 2 America’s issues, but the reality is that once the story shifts its focus off Akeem and onto his bastard heir, Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler), the movie stops being funny. Completely. Where Coming to America routinely milked laughs out of the overly-courteous Akeem facing good-old American hostility, Lavelle simply has to get used to royal living, and nothing about it seems challenging. The story tries to cook up obstacles for him, like physical challenges where he must retrieve a whisker from a sleeping lion. It’s silly, and Fowler -- bless his heart -- isn’t anywhere near the gifted comedian that Murphy was (and still is) in a similar situation.
There are moments in the film that play well, and you can tell watching them that they were meant to be huge crowd laugh moments, edited by Brewer and his team to achieve maximum exposure with an opening-night audience. Wesley Snipes gets a grand introduction, and effortlessly steals each of his scenes. Morgan Freeman surprises as the Key Orator at a pivotal funeral, introducing En Vogue and Salt ‘n’ Peppa in a way that gets a chuckle. But man, this is supposed to be the long-awaited follow up to Coming to America! Why does it feel so toothless and safe?
It’s strange because there’s a conversation in the movie between two characters that feels likes it’s only included to comment on the movie in which the dialogue rests. Lavelle is wondering why anyone in Zamunda would admire American cinema when all we offer as a cultural output is “superhero shit, remakes, and sequels to old sequels nobody asked for?” He goes on to conclude, when discussing unnecessary sequels, that “if something is good, why ruin it?” Putting that dialogue in a sequel no one asked for isn’t clever, it’s just painfully accurate.