Every so often, we get sequels that move a story forward, that enrich beloved characters and the world they inhabit, or that upends and deconstructs the first movie entirely. But most of the time, we get safe, stodgy, repetitive follow-ups like “Coming 2 America,” which goes out of its way to make sure that every joke from the first movie comes out to take another bow.
If there’s any gag from 1988’s “Coming to America” that director Craig Brewer can’t reprise or restage, he will literally roll the clip from the first movie so we can take it in all over again. This feels less like a movie and more like one of those reunion specials where the cast of a beloved old TV show returns to play their characters again, recreating their pratfalls and repeating their catchphrases.
Viewers who weren’t amused by “Coming to America” certainly aren’t going to enjoy this retread, but even fans of the original will wonder why they aren’t just rewatching the first movie rather than seeing it duplicated in such a rote fashion.
Eddie Murphy returns as Akeem, prince of the mythical nation of Zamunda, who has lived for 30 years in wedded bliss with his beloved Lisa (Shari Headley). They have raised three very capable daughters, but since Zamunda is a patriarchy, none of them can inherit the throne — and with King Jaffe (James Earl Jones) on his deathbed, the matter of who will one day succeed Akeem becomes a major issue. (King Jaffe insists on having his funeral held while he’s still alive so he can enjoy it, and the entertainment features cameos by a once-in-a-lifetime mash-up of beloved musical acts.)
General Izzi (Wesley Snipes) of the neighboring nation of Nexdoria — now that’s funny — still angry that Akeem turned down his arranged marriage with Izzi’s sister Imani (yes, Vanessa Bell Calloway is still hopping on one foot and barking), wants Akeem’s daughter Meeka (KiKi Layne) to marry Idi Izzi (Rotimi Akinosho, “Power”). She has no interest in doing so, but when Semmi (Arsenio Hall) reveals that, back in 1988, Akeem had a pot-fueled one-night stand (that the prince cannot remember) with Mary (Leslie Jones), and that it produced a son, Lavelle (Jermaine Fowler), Akeem and Semmi make their way back to Queens to meet the new prince of Zamunda.
Are the old guys in the barbershop (Murphy, Hall, Clint Smith), already seemingly past retirement age in 1988, still alive and still exactly where we left them? Yes. Is Lavelle going to be forced into an arranged marriage with an Izzi — Teyana Taylor as Bopoto — only to spurn her for true love? Affirmative. Are John Amos and Louie Anderson still working at McDowell’s (albeit now in the Zamunda location)? You guessed it. Will Reverend Brown and Randy Watson and Sexual Chocolate make an appearance? Uh-huh. Is there still adolescent snickering over the royal bathers of Zamunda? Totally, although thanks to Ms. Jones, that gag finally gets a little gender parity.
It would be one thing for Brewer and screenwriters Kenya Barris, Barry W. Blaustein and David Sheffield to bring back the same players and put them through all the same paces, but we get new characters and new cast members, and they’re still put through those same paces. Apart from Leslie Jones, providing a welcome real-world perspective to the pomp and circumstance of Zamundan royalty, the new cast members are either saddled with the familiar or given little to do besides advance the plot.
That’s a real waste of talent, particularly when you’ve got comedy powerhouses like Taylor and Snipes (so brilliantly hilarious in, respectively, “Madea’s Big Happy Family” and “Dolemite Is My Name”) standing around delivering straight lines to Murphy, who isn’t so much giving a performance as he is hosting a reunion.
There is, of course, undeniable pleasure in seeing performers like Amos, Headley and James Earl Jones take another turn in these memorable roles, and any cinematic opportunity for legendary costume designer Ruth E. Carter (“Black Panther”) to create outfits for a dazzling African aristocracy is a reward unto itself. And it’s not like some of these jokes, even retold, aren’t still funny. But given that Murphy and the other driving forces behind “Coming to America” had more than three decades to create a Part II, this long-delayed sequel feels like microwaved leftovers.
“Coming to America” premieres globally on Amazon Prime March 5.