REVIEW – ‘Coming 2 America’ is a giddily familiar trip down memory lane

In the late 1980s, practically every film Eddie Murphy touched turned into box office gold. 48 Hours, Trading Places, Harlem Nights, and Beverly Hills Cop were all hugely profitable titles. Heck, even The Golden Child cracked $150 million worldwide. But, at least in my opinion, the gold standard of his career has always been 1988’s laugh-out-loud riot Coming to America. Even with its dated outfits and retro references, it still holds up tremendously well to this day.

Nowadays, sequels to box office smash hits generally arrive within three-five years of the original. Murphy has seemingly resisted the urge to deliver a follow-up for over three decades, but the time has finally arrived for the prince of Zamunda’s return. After 33 long years, Coming 2 America will stand as the third-longest gap between movies in cinema history. That wait brings unavoidable hype and expectation, especially for fans who cherish the original.

While it’s far from the genuine genius of its predecessor (which, let’s be honest, is hardly surprising), Coming 2 America is still a giddily familiar trip down memory lane. Loaded with lashings of nostalgia, references, and cameos, this playful sequel is a fan’s delight. Murphy is playing for the devotees who’ve held the original close to their hearts for three decades, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. But for those expecting something as equally sharp, risque, and fresh as the first film, there may be a twinge of disappointment.

We rejoin Prince Akeem (Murphy) and his beloved wife, Princess Lisa (Shari Headley) on the morning of their 30th wedding anniversary in the flourishing African nation of Zamunda. Surrounded by his three daughters, Meeka (KiKi Layne), Omma (Bella Murphy), and Tinashe (Akiley Love) and still assisted by his trusty aide and confidante Semmi (Arsenio Hall), Akeem is quite content with his life.

But when Akeem’s father, King Jaffe Joffer (James Earl Jones) falls ill, the King blurts out Akeem has a “bastard son” the prince never knew existed in Queens, New York. To complicate matters further, the King’s elderly shaman Baba (also Hall) prophesies Zamunda will fall to their rival nation Nexdoria and its flamboyant dictator General Izzi (a terrific Wesley Snipes) due to the fact Akeem has never birthed a male heir.

Though the intelligent and cunning Meeka may clearly be a worthy successor to her father, Zamundan law states that only a son can succeed a king. As such, Akeem decides to return to America and locate his offspring Lavelle Junson (Jermaine Fowler) to take his rightful place as heir to the throne. While Lavelle, his mother, Mary (Leslie Jones), and Uncle Reem (Tracy Morgan) immediately take to the luxuries of royal life, the newly-appointed heir begins to question if he actually wants his apparent birthright.

Coming 2 America follows a familiar path to that of its predecessor, but with Lavelle taking Akeem’s place as the fish-out-of-water in a foreign land. The sequel’s title actually feels like a mild case of fraud, given the bulk of this film takes place in Zamunda and not the United States. At the core of this follow-up is a similarly independent prince who yearns to walk his own path in life and reject what is expected of a future ruler. There’s even a similar subplot centred on Lavelle resisting his betrothed Nextdorian bride, Bopoto Izzi (Teyana Taylor) and following his heart towards a blossoming relationship with royal groomer Mirembe (Nomzamo Mbatha).

From narrative threads to dialogue, this is the kind of sequel that repeats practically everything from the original. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right? Written by Kenya Barris, Barry W. Blaustein, and David Sheffield, the screenplay is essentially a carbon copy of the first film, which is hardly surprising, given Blaustein and Sheffield also wrote the predecessor. Practically every character from Coming to America makes an appearance here including Louie Anderson‘s Maurice, John Amos‘ Cleo McDowell, and, of course, the smorgasbord of prosthetic-clad oddball characters Murphy and Hall played back in 1988.

The film’s biggest laughs arrive when Akeem and Semmi revisit the outlandish crew at the My-T-Sharp Barbershop in Queens, which quite literally hasn’t changed in 30 years. Murphy’s Mr. Clarence and Saul and Hall’s Morris are just as riotous as ever, albeit noticeably less profane, given the film’s PG-13 rating. It’s inescapable how the rating has shaped the safe and offensive-free comedy. Even soul singer Randy Watson of the infamous band Sexual Chocolate feels slightly toned down here, yet still entirely hilarious. There’s also a bevy of other cameos that are best remained unspoiled including one that’s another playful nod to Trading Places.

Murphy and Hall both effortlessly slide back into Akeem and Semmi as if no time has passed at all and their charming chemistry is as wonderful as ever. Akeem takes on a more straight-man type role in the sequel’s narrative and Murphy is noticeably more subdued when he’s playing the royal. But when he dons the make-up and wigs for his other roles, he’s freed to let loose like only he can. Hall all but steals the film, reminding us of his ingenious comedic timing and deadpan line delivery that’s only aged like a fine wine.

Unsurprisingly (especially for those who saw his wonderful performance in 2019’s Dolemite Is My Name), Snipes is outrageously hilarious as the colourful military dictator who sweeps into every room with drums, dancers, and an egotistical swagger that would make Kanye jealous. Comedy is fast becoming Snipes’ wheelhouse and he breathes so much life and energy into this film. Jones and Morgan offer their typical loudmouth comedy schtick, but they’re both so damn good at it, it’s hard to argue with what they’re delivering.

Fowler makes an impressive play to essentially lead this film with his genuine, natural charm, but he’s ultimately shown up by the stellar Layne, whose Meeka is a genuine force to be reckoned with. If only the screenplay had the nerve to explore her narrative thread more deeply, the film could have said something profound about the sexist laws that still forbid females from ascending to power in royal families. It touches upon this theme, particularly in a fiery alcohol-fuelled speech given by Lisa to her archaic husband, but it’s a thread that feels like an afterthought amongst all the silliness.

What truly stands out in this sequel are the absolutely stunning costume designs of the legendary (and now Oscar-winning) Ruth E. Carter. It’s a genuine travesty the film isn’t being released during awards season eligibility, as Carter deserves her fourth Oscar nomination for the vibrant African-inspired costuming she’s meticulously crafted. From outlandishly lavish royal outfits to New York street style, Carter completely knocks it out of the park with designs so breathtakingly gorgeous, you will want to pause your TV to take it all in.

While Coming 2 America may not exactly hold a candle to its predecessor, it’s still a fun piece of silly nostalgia that pays homage to everything you loved back in 1988. The original cast are clearly having an absolute blast getting the band back together and it’s easy for an audience to join them on their trip back in time. There’s nothing wrong with a good dose of familiarity and it was a pleasure to find our friends from Zamunda are just as lovable as they were 30 years ago. Be sure to stick around during the credits for a few additional surprises including a new rendition of an old favourite.

Distributor: Amazon Studios
Cast: Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall, Jermaine Fowler, Leslie Jones, Tracy Morgan, KiKi Layne, Shari Headley, Teyana Taylor, Wesley Snipes, James Earl Jones
Director: Craig Brewer
Producers: Kevin Misher, Eddie Murphy
Screenplay: Kenya Barris, Barry W. Blaustein, David Sheffield
Cinematography: Joe Williams
Production Design: Jefferson Sage
Costume Design: Ruth E. Carter
Editors: David S. Clark, Billy Fox
Music: Jermaine Stegall

Running Time: 110 minutes
Release Date: 5th March 2021 (Worldwide)