‘Coming to America 2’ review: Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall, back to Zamunda for some nostalgic movie tourism - SIRKENAYO
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‘Coming to America 2’ review: Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall, back to Zamunda for some nostalgic movie tourism

The 33-years-later sequel “Coming 2 America” starts poorly but gets funnier and more likeable as it goes, and it’s stolen by a newcomer to this particular nostalgia tour: Wesley Snipes, topping it up as the military dictator of Nextdoria. For those who don’t know their mythical African geography, Nextdoria is the neighbouring country to the better-known Zamunda, ruled by the dying King Jaffe Joffer (cameo by James Earl Jones) and soon to be turned over to our old friend Prince Akeem, portrayed by Eddie Murphy.

No longer a grinning naif, Murphy’s prince has mellowed, if not receded, into a new role: the royal straight man for his costars. In 1988, at the peak of Murphy’s superstardom, “Coming to America” allowed the “Saturday Night Live” and “Beverly Hills Cop” alum to lean into a relatively conventional but — for Hollywood — rare Black showcase of commercial romantic comedy. Its storyline was something out of an ancient, lily-white operetta: A prince from a fictional faraway land sidesteps an arranged marriage by seeking, and finding, a true love match in the borough of Queens, N.Y., USA.

“Coming to America” was directed by John Landis, and there’s a story or two behind that, as Murphy relayed in a 1990 Playboy interview. The movie became a hit, though many white critics at the time didn’t go for it. (Roger Ebert called it “lethargic.”) Countless millions can quote the barbershop trash-talk zingers and crack up at the mere mention of the soul band “Sexual Chocolate.” Those millions are the reason we now have “Coming 2 America,” the scattershot but genial follow-up streaming on Amazon on March 5.

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Murphy and costar Arsenio Hall are back, of course, playing four roles apiece, including the Queens barbershop regulars. Director Craig Brewer’s sequel, working from a script by Barry W. Blaustein, Justin Kanew and Kenya Barris, turns more of the narrative over to the women, which is a big change from the casually rampant misogyny of the first one. In other words, the bare-breasted bathing attendants are nowhere to be found (cancel culture! even in Zamunda!), though the joke returns in a gender reversal.

Akeem and his Queens-bred queen-to-be, Lisa (Shari Headley)live in harmony with their three daughters (KiKi Layne, Eddie’s daughter Bella Murphy and Akiley Love). The eldest daughter is a clear and shining heiress to the throne, but ancient custom prevents her from being next in line. Meantime, the king’s shaman (Hall, encased in latex and decrepit dental work) foresees a scary vision. Nexdoria’s mercurial leader, Gen. Izzi (Snipes), will attack Zamunda unless Akeem returns to New York and fetches the son (Jermaine Fowler as Lavelle) he never knew he had. “I will find this bastard of Queens!” Akeem declares.

Along with Snipes, who scores laughs with the most singular vocal flourishes and most nuanced mugging in modern movies, the newbies to the “Coming to America” universe include Leslie Jones as Akeem’s one-off from the old days; Tracy Morgan, as Lavelle’s uncle; and Nomzamo Mbatha, a warm, humanizing asset as palace groomer Mirembe and, for Lavelle, an invaluable mentor. These two are destined for each other; the movie works that out in due course while working in material for bounce-backs from the first movie. I was especially pleased to see John Amos again as Akeem’s father-in-law, now the proprietor of Zamunda’s first McDowell’s franchise.

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It’s not an especially well-made film. Director Brewer made a better Eddie Murphy comedy two years ago with “Dolemite Is My Name.” The editing feels jumpy and prone to nervous cutting, and until the midpoint, “Coming 2 America” bumps along on collective moviegoing memories rather than finesse. But there’s a modest kick in watching these people get together again, and relocating familiar characters to a new century leads to some shifts in tone. The old guys at the barbershop complain that they can’t say what they used to be able to say, back when their banter was rated R instead of PG-13 and before it was #TimesUp for anything.

“I’m so sorry you can no longer indiscriminately touch a woman’s body at your every whim,” Akeem says to the barbershop proprietor at one point, and it’s hard not to hear that as Murphy Then consoling Murphy Now. Mbatha refers to the randy Queens preacher (Hall, reprising a role from the ’88 film) as “a womanizing, sexist officiant.” You wonder if the movie’s heart is really in the apologies; sincere or not, the script’s wit beams on and off. But there’s a dance-party finale, and the viewer glides into the bungled-outtake end credits in an easygoing mood.

‘Coming 2 America’ — 2.5 stars

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for crude and sexual content, language and drug content_

Running time: 1:50

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, starting March 5.

Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.

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