Sequels that arrive many years, if not decades, after their popular predecessor face an uphill battle on multiple fronts. Even if they’re able to wrangle the surviving cast back together, the question then becomes what to do with them. Some films go the route of simply repeating themes, stories, and arcs that came before while others take the opportunity to stretch a bit in search of new character beats, conflicts, and surprises. Coming 2 America falls blandly into the former camp.
Prince Akeem (Eddie Murphy) is on the verge of becoming king of Zamunda as his father (James Earl Jones) nears death, but the impending time of mourning and celebration is marred by the intentions of a neighboring country. Nextdoria’s ruler, General Izzi (a ridiculously entertaining Wesley Snipes), wants to unite the countries through blood whether it be through a marriage or via war. Akeem only has daughters wholly uninterested in marriage, a doubly bad reality as Zamundan law requires a male child to continue the royal lineage, but that changes when he discovers he has a bastard son back in America. Akeem and Semmi (Arsenio Hall) once more set off to Queens, New York to retrieve his son, marry him off to Izzi’s daughter, and save Zamunda.
Coming 2 America recycles jokes and plot points as if they’re about to expire, and despite the introduction of fresh blood the film can’t help but repeat the very same conflicts from the 1988 original. Director Craig Brewer and the film’s three writers (Barry W. Blaustein, David Sheffield, and Kenya Barris) get so caught up in repeating what worked before that they neglect characters with the most promise and potential. We still get some laughs, of course, thanks mainly to Snipes and Hall, but the film lacks both bite and fresh wit.
Akeem’s son, Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler), is sick of being judged by his appearance and behaviors — one early scene sees him interviewing for a job with Calvin Duke, grandson to the greedy brothers from Trading Places (1984), and realizing that Calvin has already judged him unworthy — but he quickly takes to life as a prince in Zamunda. An arranged marriage is set up, but he instead falls for a servant girl named Mirembe (Nomzamo Mbatha) who loves him for him and not his title. Inexplicably, it’s Akeem who insists Lavelle abide by the rules and customs of Zamunda regardless of his interests and affections, and it’s an arc that feels as lazy as it does inconsistent with everything he said and did previously. Add in the return of rose petals dropped at royal feet and Lisa (Shari Headley) being entirely comfortable having servants, and it feels like the first film’s romantic heroes became assholes over the years. Exploring that shift might have made for an interesting film, but it’s not what we get in Coming 2 America.
Given the recycled plot structure, and through no fault of Fowler, Lavelle is the film’s least interesting character despite being given an abundance of screen time. He’s riding the same relative arc as Akeem did the first time around, but he’s lacking both that freshness and Murphy’s comedic wit. It’s an odd choice given the supporting roster of female characters here starting with Akeem’s oldest daughter, Meeka (Kiki Layne). Zamunda’s sexist laws — thirty years on and Akeem never allowed women to rule or even own businesses? — mean she’s a princess without power, and that character truth combined with Layne’s clear charisma and talent make her one of the film’s highlights despite being underutilized.
The regurgitated storyline is joined by several callbacks of varying quality — Imani Izzi (Vanessa Bell Calloway) is still hopping and barking, the royal bathers now come in male versions, and the latex-covered boys back in Queens still deliver the bulk of the film’s humor. Murphy and Hall once more undergo prosthetic assistance to bring Clarence, Saul, Randy Watson, Morris, Reverend Brown, and others to life, and they’re undeniably fun to see back in action. They’re joined by returning faces including John Amos, Clint Smith, Paul Bates, and Louie Anderson, as well as “newcomers” like Leslie Jones and Tracy Morgan, but they’re all fighting against Coming 2 America‘s slight and far too safe script.
The biggest letdown is seeing Murphy deliver such a generic, lifeless character after both the original film and his wildly charismatic and energetic performance in Brewer’s Dolemite Is My Name. 1988’s Akeem was a man filled with playful innocence and willful drive, but Murphy sleepwalks through the role here struggling to muster the energy with a character who clearly feels the same way. He gives far more love to those side characters mentioned above, but it makes for a film that only really comes alive in fits and bursts.
The bulk of Coming 2 America takes place in the Zamundan castle that the royal family calls home, and that too leaves the film feeling like a smaller follow-up to the original. Brief visits back to Queens are almost entirely interiors while the wilds of Zamunda look like any American field (probably in Georgia as that’s where the mansion interiors were shot too), and it all works to give the movie a flat feeling. There are brief bursts of cinematic life including the return of colorfully choreographed dance numbers and Snipes’ strut every time he enters the room, but at the end of the day this is a mild comedy aimed almost exclusively at die hard fans. Basically, we shouldn’t be surprised that Paramount sold it to a competing streamer despite launching their own with Paramount+ on the very same weekend it debuts…