★★★★½ out of 5 -- Rated: PG-13 -- Run time: 1 hour, 50 minutes (Available now on Amazon Prime Video streaming)
There’s always a bit of nervous apprehension when actors try to revisit a favorite old character. Do people care? Is there anything new they can do with the role? Or are they just doing it for the money?
Eddie Murphy has enjoyed success with fairly quick sequels to “Nutty Professor” and “Beverly Hills Cop,” although the tired third installment featuring Detective Axel Foley was one movie too many.
Now, 33 years after the release of the romantic comedy hit, “Coming to America,” Murphy is bringing back one of his best characters, Prince Akeem of Zamunda, and the verdict is a big thumbs up.
The movie begins in the lush African country where the prince and his American wife Lisa (the returning Shari Headley) are celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary. Prince Akeem is now the father to three girls and facing challenges because of the failing health of his father King Joffer (the returning James Earl Jones) as well as threats from the ambitious military leader of a neighboring country. (“General Izzi” is hilariously played by a strutting Wesley Snipes whose every entrance is something to behold.)
The script by longtime Murphy collaborators Barry Blaustein and David Sheffield -- who penned hits like the original “Coming to America” as well as “Nutty Professor” and who wrote some of Murphy’s classic SNL skits -- also features the writing talents of “black-ish” creator Kenya Barris.
The story manages to work in a non-stop collection of returning characters from the first film, including Arsenio Hall as Akeem’s best friend Semmi, the guys from the Queens barbershop, fast-food restaurant co-worker Louie Anderson, and a number of others. There’s even a nod to two stars from the Murphy movie, “Trading Places” that involves SNL’s Colin Jost.
But the movie doesn’t get bogged down with re-visiting familiar territory and happily moves the story forward with a number of very strong characters.
There’s Kiki Layne (“If Beale Street Could Talk”) as Akeem’s oldest daughter who clearly possesses major leadership capabilities. Also effective is Jermaine Fowler (“Superior Donuts”) as the son Akeem discovers he fathered back in New York 30 years earlier and who struggles to find a place with the royal family he didn’t know existed. Kudos also go to engaging South African actress Nomzamo Mbatha as a “royal groomer” who develops a close relationship with the royal heir.
Director Craig Brewer (“Dolemite Is My Name” and “Hustle and Flow”) masterfully utilizes a large cast, giving everyone a chance to shine. Shari Headley as Akeem’s wife is mostly background for the first part of the film before roaring back with key scenes in the second half, including a wonderful bonding moment with Leslie Jones, an actress sometimes guilty of going over the top but who plays her part as the mother of the royal son with just the right amount of slight restraint.
Also strong are Tracy Morgan in his role as the young royal’s protective New York uncle, and especially John Amos, reprising his role as Akeem’s father-in-law and owner of a McDonalds-like restaurant that’s always facing lawsuits. And just a note: Look for Murphy’s real-life daughter Bella playing his middle child in the film. (The one with glasses)
There’s also a number of stellar cameos, especially involving music performers, that are extremely well-done.
Perhaps one of the best decisions of the creative team was to have Murphy play the straight man in this movie, with his character trying to negotiate all the craziness around him. It makes the movie much more enjoyable.
“Coming 2 America” is a welcome comedy in a movie season filled with a lot of heavy subject matter. Murphy and company have great timing: It’s been a tough year and this film is just the ticket.
Make sure you stick around and watch the credits all the way through.