The theme of a father being challenged to recognize his children’s unique desires and power is central to the story of Coming 2 America, the long-awaited sequel to the ‘80s classic of a similar name. But it’s also essential to what makes this sequel go.
Starring Eddie Murphy as Akeem and other familiar faces from the original (Arsenio Hall, Shari Headley, John Amos, James Earl Jones), the sequel walks a tightrope, paying service to the original and its fans while also ushering in a new generation of characters and evolving the story. But those new characters aren’t there merely as stand-ins who are tasked with helping Murphy rewalk the path of the original. They’re empowered to bring a new energy and make this feel like as much their movie as it is Murphy’s. Which is a shocking thing considering the death grip franchise stars usually want to keep no matter the advance of time. Call it the Die Hard principle.
Jermaine Fowler is the biggest beneficiary of this, playing Akeem’s bastard son. His character, Lavelle, has a few things in common with ‘80s Akeem and the fish out of water element of both films is certainly central. But there are layers to his character’s story that make things a lot more complicated than when a young Akeem was combing through Queens in search of love. Watching his character not just find himself but assert himself, impacting everyone around him, is the best part of the whole thing. It’s heart and soul and signifies a real breakout for Fowler, a comic who stood out in Sorry To Bother You, helped to make the TV adaptation of Superior Donuts interesting, and has generally been on the cusp for years. Whether it was director Craig Brewer or Murphy, good eye to whoever put Fowler in a position to do his thing and succeed.
Ditto on the casting of Wesley Snipes, who never really springs to mind as a perfect comedic foil. But he is here, proving that out with boundless swagger while chewing up scenes as a smiling yet dangerous general who challenges Akeem at every end. Remember, before Snipes was Blade and a ‘90s action hero (THE ‘90s action hero?), he demonstrated his flair for comedy in White Men Can’t Jump and Major League. Also, Demolition Man, even though it’s not technically a comedy. Really, this looks like the most fun Snipes has had on-screen since that movie when he was, again, chewing up scenery and strutting with verve and confidence as he wrecking balled everything in his path throughout.
Leslie Jones and Tracy Morgan don’t get as much screen time and they don’t affect the story as deeply, but each delivers big laughs, especially Jones paying homage to the royal bath scene from the original. And her back and forth with Headley’s Lisa is surprising and fun. If there’s a sequel to this sequel (something I could not have imagined saying going into this), I definitely want more from that pairing.
As Meeka, Akeem’s oldest daughter, Kiki Layne continues her ascent following If Beale Street Could Talk. She is fierce as hell, pushing back on old school rules and, at times, clashing with her father. I could go on and on, Trevor Noah has a fun multi-scene cameo as a daft newscaster. Nomzamo Mbatha’s Mirembe is a key character who brings easy charm and balance as the royal barber.
Don’t get confused, there’s plenty from Akeem and Hall’s Semmi. Ditto pop-ins from the original’s hilarious array of side characters brought to life by Murphy, Hall, and a whole lot of makeup. But the version of this film that existed in my mind prior to actually watching it featured a whole lot more from them. It was all about those characters and Queens and references to the original. And that would have been fine. I would have gotten nostalgia drunk with old friends because I love the original. But this is better and bolder. A rare thing from way back that tries and succeeds in its effort to bring its original audience and a new audience together with something that can appeal to both.
You just have to give it up to Murphy [and Brewer, of course]. This could have been a vanity project and he could have been the only hero with everyone else happily taking a backseat because he’s Eddie Murphy and this is him back in one of his most defining roles from a film that still resonates with a lot of people. But Murphy saw the whole board and an opportunity to make something that would continue that legacy with another memorable chapter.
That this is surprising is, maybe on me more than Murphy. Yes. he traded in a lot of coolness equity with a plethora of lame family comedies and weirdly ambitious yet ill-advised swings that that were 100% STAR vehicles where it was all eyes on him as he mugged through lackluster scripts. The Haunted Mansion, Daddy Day Care, and Pluto Nash come to mind. There’s also a period where he moved from mismatched pairing to mismatched pairing, failing to generate much chemistry with co-stars like Owen Wilson, Ben Stiller, and Robert DeNiro (I Spy, Tower Heist, Showtime). And then the do-it-all era with Norbit and The Nutty Professor films (with mixed results). But films like Dreamgirls and Dolemite Is My Name, ones where Murphy has gotten his best reviews since the ‘80s, are all about the ensemble. Just like this film.
How this all impacts what comes next is anyone’s guess, but I’d welcome a late phase comedy bridge-builder role for Murphy where he picks his spots and shares the workload with a crew of talented comics who elevate the material and, in turn, elevate his legacy. Icons don’t just stubbornly persist while trying to evade the realities of time, they adapt their game. Maybe that’s what we’re seeing with Coming 2 America and Eddie Murphy.