Coming 2 America, arriving Friday March 5 on Amazon Prime after being sold by Paramount for a reported $125 million, is exactly what you feared it would be. It’s a weak-sauce retread of the 1988 original, one not only defanged for a PG-13 (the original was R-rated) but written and performed at a level resembling a morality tale for young children. It repeats many of the first film’s gags and character beats, while loosely retelling the same story via the kids of its original protagonists not unlike quite a few Walt Disney straight-to-video animated sequels. But as far as those go, Coming 2 America is closer to Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea than The Lion King 2: Simba’s Pride.
Coming to America (still one of Eddie Murphy’s biggest live-action grossers) was no grand classic, but it was a solid star+concept Paramount picture which represented a hybrid between Eddie Murphy’s R-rated “agent of chaos” early years and his eventual post-Nutty Professor “fun for the whole family” straight man/reacting to chaos in his midst shtick. And yeah, the notion of a ridiculously wealthy African nation as well as a studio programmer with almost no white people is sadly as big of a deal in 2021 as it was in 1988. So while there was arguable commercial value in bringing the cast back together, there clearly was no artistic hook beyond “let’s do it all again, but for kids.”
The Craig Brewer-directed follow-up takes place 30 years after the first film even though nobody in this Black-centric film has aged a day since 1988. That “black don’t crack” variable again highlights how Hollywood’s preference for white movie stars conflicts with their desire for “sexy young heartthrobs” since non-white stars like John Cho, Salma Hayek and Will Smith age at about 10% the rate of their Caucasian peers. More problematic is that the film plays like a laugh-lite kids-flick version of the original, with a plot that plays like a loose mix of Coming to America and Shrek the Third (the worst Shrek movie).
We pick up with Prince Akeem (Eddie Murphy, as a bystander in his own movie) celebrating 30 years of happiness with Lisa (Shari Headley). King Jaffe (James Earl Jones) is deathly ill, and Akeem’s three daughters are forbidden from eventually inheriting the throne. With a threat of war from General Izzi (a winning Wesley Snipes even if he doesn’t quite go full-Simon Phoenix) from the neighboring nation of Nexdoria (cute) unless Akeem’s daughter Meeka (Kiki Layne) agrees to marry Idi Izzi (Rotimi Akinosho). It’s a good thing that Akeem turns out to have an “illegitimate” son (Jermaine Fowler) from his initial excursion to America. Problem solved?
Yes, this one-night stand occurred before Akeem met Lisa. However, the tryst with Mary (Leslie Jones, providing a grounded contrast to the royalty/wealth porn) is played out, with Semmi (Arsenio Hall) plying Akeem with drugs, as something very close to male rape. We can expect a few think pieces over the next week. We again meet Imagini (Vanessa Bell Calloway) who still hops on one foot and barks, which cruelly implies that Akeem’s rejection of her essentially ruined her life. It’s a classic dumb sequel move where you call back a joke without realizing that it casts the previous film in a much darker light.
Anyway, following a pre-death funeral for King Jaffe (which features the film’s best cameo), Akeem flies back to Queens and quickly fetches his previously-unknown son and brings him and his family (Jones and Uncle Reem played by Tracy Morgan) to Zamunda so that Lavelle can take his place as the new prince. No spoilers, but the patriarchy is challenged as Lavelle finds himself rebelling against royal expectations and Akeem realizes he had ideal heirs under his own roof all along. Not only does Coming 2 America play like a rerun of its predecessors, it features characters constantly pointing out the extent to which it’s a retread.
The film’s ideas on tradition versus progress haven’t been cutting edge since at best the 1990’s. The film plays out like a reunion show whereby a cast of a beloved TV show reprises their roles and plays out the hits even sans narrative context. There’s so little “How the world has changed since 1988” (save for one gag about hailing a taxi) that it could have been a period piece. Like Scream 4 and Halloween (2018), this legacy sequel proclaims to bring a franchise into the present-tense but remakes the first entry. Why watch this mediocre sequel when you can just watch the original?
Coming to America is even available on the same streaming service as this sequel. I’ve written about how the wave of franchise revivals were risky when audiences had access to high quality versions of the previous films at the touch of a button. Why see Men in Black International in theaters when you can rent Men in Black 3 at home? That Coming 2 America is “free” to Amazon subscribers takes some of that out of the equation, but there’s still the skewed dichotomy that occurred last October when the lousy remake of The Witches debuted on HBO Max right as the 1990 version was on Netflix.
There are surface-level pleasures related to seeing this batch of actors frolicking in Ruth E. Carter’s dazzling costumes, and a handful of earned laughs amid the 108-minute running time. But Coming 2 America is neutered with patronizing and condescending life lessons that makes this seemingly adult-skewing film play like an afterschool special, making it another sequel to an R-rated movie that feels like a “for kids” follow-up. The reunion sequel is hit and miss (at best), with Bill & Ted Face the Music and Anchorman 2 contrasting with Zoolander, No. 2 and Dumb and Dumber To. Alas, Coming 2 America is very much in the latter camp.