It’s hard to shake the feeling that Coming 2 America should’ve ditched the awkward number-play of the title and gone with Coming To Zamunda instead.
While Prince Akeem (Eddie Murphy) briefly returns to the US (and that barbershop), the film mostly reverses the 1988 film’s fish-out-of-water element, as Akeem’s long-lost son, Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler), finds himself traveling to the fictional African nation to take his place as the heir to the throne.
In the intervening years, Akeem has (legitimately) sired three daughters with his wife Lisa (Shari Headley, one of many familiar faces returning). For most of the film, Lavelle experiences the reverse culture shock that his pampered father had in Queens, New York, three decades ago.
Belated comedy sequels don’t have the best track record, but Coming 2 America fares about as well as Bill & Ted Face The Music: like that overdue reunion, it’s extremely reliant on the audience’s fondness for its characters and shamelessly milks that nostalgia, while at the same time passing the baton to a younger generation.
There’s barely a line or a moment from Coming To America ’88 that doesn’t get its own callback here, for better or worse. On the plus side, it makes for a warmhearted reminder of a genuine classic that’s easy to smirk along to. But the cost is that it never really carves out its own space, playing more like a Best Of than a standalone second album.
Fowler makes a considerable impression as the next in line to the throne, exhibiting star-in-the-making charisma. Leslie Jones bags several of the biggest laughs as Lavelle’s mother, Mary, herself enjoying the newfound perks of palace life, while Wesley Snipes damn near steals the film as General Izzi, the brother of Akeem’s would-be bride who was driven barking mad by her rejection in the first film.
Of course, it's great to see Murphy back in what’s arguably his most likable role, paired once again with Arsenio Hall’s Semmi (and yes, the duo turn up in heavy prosthetics in a number of goofy guises). But at times, it can feel like they’re relegated to supporting players.
Good as Fowler is – and KiKi Layne (The Old Guard) is also an extremely welcome presence as Meeka, Akeem’s eldest daughter who clearly should be Zamunda’s next leader – it’s Akeem and Semmi you want front and center in a sequel.
Here Murphy reteams with Dolemite Is My Name director Craig Brewer, but their Blaxploitation biopic felt like a better showcase for the star’s talents, particularly at this stage of his career. One C2A highlight reveals how Akeem came to father Lavelle in a digitally de-aged flashback; the film as a whole could’ve done with filling in more blanks in Akeem and Semmi’s lives.
Coming 2 America has arrived at just the right time: its eminent watchability and pleasing lack of drama (things never get too dangerous or dicey) mean it should go down well as a cheering antidote to stressful times. But it's hard to imagine anyone opting to watch it over the original in years to come. Ultimately, it’s more fawning subject than rightful heir.