Thirty-three years have passed since the release of Coming to America — it’s as old as Rihanna, Zac Efron, Blake Lively, and Kendrick Lamar — so making a sequel would seem a tricky bit of business, requiring a high-wire act of satisfying fans of the original while bringing in younger viewers who might not know the earlier film at all.
The makers of Coming 2 America try to do both simultaneously, inserting the new character of Lavelle, the “bastard prince” (Jermaine Fowler), to provide an under-30 protagonist, as in such “legacyquels” as Creed and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. But returning screenwriters Barry W. Blaustein and David Sheffield (and new collaborators Kenya Barris and Justin Kanew) also go hard for the superfans, stuffing the picture with not only flashbacks to the original, but copious callbacks to its gags — bits that, as Bilge Ebiri puts it, “will make literally zero sense to anyone who hasn’t seen the first film fairly recently.” So if you haven’t, here’s your cheat sheet.
Same Skeleton, New Skin
Ebiri notes that “it doesn’t feel like the filmmakers wrote a new script so much as they just … rewrote the old script,” and he’s not wrong; in terms of beat-for-beat replication, we’re getting into Hangover Part II territory here:
• The film again opens by pushing past the iconic Paramount mountain to reveal the African nation of Zamunda behind it, the camera gliding and rolling through the fields and valleys as we hear a version of “Mbube,” the original version of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”
• We land on the palace of Zamunda, where three rose bearers hurry to attend to the royal offspring — but this time, rather than Prince Akeem (Eddie Murphy), it’s his three daughters.
• They then hurry to their parents, Akeem and Lisa (Shari Headley), to wish them a happy anniversary. “It is our anniversary,” he exclaims happily, echoing his line reading of “It is my birthday” in the original film’s opening.
• Shortly thereafter, Akeem engages in a spirited round of stick-fighting — this time with his daughters rather than Semmi (Arsenio Hall).
• After Akeem (now King Akeem) and Semmi decide to journey to Queens, we again hear the title song as they fly in — but sung by John Legend. (Legend reappears in the end credits to sing Oha’s 1988 showstopper “She’s Your Queen.”)
• In one of the major structural deviations, the big palace song-and-dance number shows up around the 40-minute mark rather than early on. (Also, Paula Abdul didn’t choreograph this one.)
• But that sequence sets up the replication of the original film’s central romantic conflict: Just like his father, Lavelle dodges a politically expedient arranged marriage with a neighboring princess to pursue his genuine attraction to a more “common” girl, Mirembe (Nomzamo Mbatha).
• And once again, the furious king follows his son back to Queens to track him down and put a stop to this foolishness — but of course, when his son explains that he has to follow his heart, he understands.
• The first film ended with a memorable (pre-Marvel!) post-credits scene of Saul (the elderly Jewish barbershop kibitzer, played by Murphy under layers of makeup) telling his favorite joke. So we get an after-credits scene with Saul here as well, alongside Hall’s new secondary character, Baba the witch doctor.
Is There an Echo in Here?
But they don’t just copy the structure of the first film; several lines of dialogue are repeated, often verbatim. To wit:
• “Defend yourself, you sweat from a baboon’s balls”: said by Semmi to Akeem in their sparring session in the first film, and to General Izzi (Wesley Snipes) during the big fight in this one.
• Izzi’s sister Imani (Vanessa Bell Calloway) is still jumping on one leg and barking like a dog, as Akeem commanded her to at the beginning of the first film. And when his son meets General Izzi’s daughter (Teyana Taylor), they have the conversation Akeem and Imani did: “What do you like?” “Whatever you like,” etc.
• When King Jaffe Joffer (James Earl Jones) comes to Queens in the first film, Saul rubs his lion-skin sash and exclaims, “This is beautiful, what is that, velvet?” The last line of Coming 2 America is Saul asking Baba, of his robes, “Hey, what is this, velvet?”
Occasionally, however, the writers go to the trouble of not just quoting themselves, but adding and/or winking at their original ideas:
• When Akeem is told that his illegitimate son was conceived during his journey to Queens, he protests that this is impossible: “I did not sow my royal oats,” he insists, referencing his father’s original, cheerful instructions for the trip.
• At the beginning of that conversation in the first film, as he and his father take a stroll, he greets a baby elephant with a warm, “Hello, Babar.” In the new film, he introduces his son to a large, majestic elephant as “Babar, the magnificent! I’ve known him since he was a little elephant.” (As the original line was a wink at the children’s book series, this one kind of feels like a hat on a hat.)
• In the first film, Akeem hails a cab by stepping into the street, putting up his hand, and commanding, “HALT!” He tries the same trick here — but stops a rideshare driver, who explains that he has to hail him via the app.
• At the end of the big stick fight, Akeem’s daughter Meeka (KiKi Layne) puts General Izzi on his back in the exact same way her father cut down Semmi — and director Craig Brewer even replicates original director John Landis’s framing of the action.
• When Akeem and Semmi return to Queens, they’re surprised by how much the gentrified neighborhood has cleaned up — except for the untouched MY-T-Sharp barbershop. And you can even spot a Soul Glo poster in the background inside.
• The original film got plenty of comic mileage out of Akeem’s employer, McDowell’s, which was completely different from McDonald’s, according to its owner (John Amos). “They’ve got the Big Mac — I’ve got the Big Mick,” he insisted. “We’ve both got two all-beef patties, sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, and onions. But they use a sesame-seed bun — my buns have no seeds.” In the new film, with a McDowell’s franchise opening in Zamunda, he has more differences to explain. “They’ve got Egg McMuffins … we’ve got Egg McStuffins!” he says. “The McFlurbly is nothing like the McFlurry! We put the toppings on the bottom!”
• In a reference to that “no seeds” line, when Akeem and Semmi first return to Queens, their limousine parks under an advertisement for McDonald’s, “HOME OF THE REAL BIG MAC,” with an arrow pointing to a picture of the burger and the caption, “with seeds.”
The Circle of Life
Coming to America isn’t the only film frequently referenced in Coming 2 America. When The Lion King was released in 1994, it felt as if its casting department was filled with Coming to America fans; not only did James Earl Jones provide the voice of King Mufasa, but Madge Sinclair, who co-starred as his Queen Aoleon in America, voiced Mufasa’s Queen Sarabi. And so, in Coming 2 America, Murphy & Co. return the favor.
• During King Jaffe Joffer’s pre-death funeral celebration, a cameo-ing Morgan Freeman refers to him (correctly!) as “the inspiration for Mufasa.”
• That presentation also includes the tableau of a child being held aloft, the key image of The Lion King’s opening scene and ad campaign.
• One of the few new characters, the aforementioned Baba the witch doctor, seems awfully similar to The Lion King’s Rafiki.
• When Akeem charges into the barbershop looking for his son, Clarence the barber (also Murphy) cheerfully greets him as “Mufasa!”
• And in one more wink at James Earl Jones’s extensive body of work, a promo bumper for Zamunda News Network features Jones intoning, “This is ZNN” — just as he did for CNN for years.
• Coming to America itself featured a clever reference to another, earlier movie — a moment in which Akeem hands an envelope of money to a pair of homeless men sleeping under the Brooklyn Bridge. Those men are then revealed as Randolph and Mortimer Duke (Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche), the rich, racist businessmen left destitute at the end of Murphy and Landis’s previous collaboration, Trading Places. That donation apparently worked out well for them; in the new film, Lavelle applies for a job at the revitalized Duke & Duke, interviewing with Calvin Duke (Colin Jost), Randolph’s grandson.
• In the playful behind-the-scenes footage seen during the end credits, Jermaine Fowler sing-songs, “I got the whiskers, they from a lion,” prompting Murphy to object, “That’s my thing!” — as Fowler is paying homage to the “We got some ice cream” song from Eddie Murphy: Delirious.
• This one is a bit more of a stretch, but as Murphy sits on his throne in his royal garb, listening to a performance of Prince’s “Gett Off,” this viewer was suddenly reminded of when he did the exact same thing for the Purple One’s old rival Michael Jackson in the video for “Remember the Time.”
• Few sequels have reunited their original casts as thoroughly as Coming 2 America; just about everyone is back but Eriq La Salle, Samuel L. Jackson, and Cuba Gooding Jr. Aside from Murphy, Hall, Headley, Amos, Calloway, and James Earl Jones, we have encores from Paul Bates, Clint Smith, Louie Anderson, and even Garcelle Beauvais, promoted from “Rose Bearer” in the first film to “Rose Bearer Priestess” in this one.
• But it’s also something of a follow-up to Murphy’s last starring vehicle, Dolemite Is My Name, reuniting the star with that film’s director (Brewer) and his co-star Snipes. And in that post-credits scene, Saul recites “Signifying Monkey,” one of Rudy Ray “Dolemite” Moore’s most famous routines.
• And, since Murphy broke through on Saturday Night Live, it’s a bit of an SNL alumni show as well, featuring supporting roles and cameos by Leslie Jones, Tracy Morgan, and Jost; co-writers Blaustein and Sheffield also got their starts on the show, writing sketches and desk pieces for Murphy before penning the scripts to Coming to America, Boomerang, The Nutty Professor, and Nutty Professor II: The Klumps.
• When Lavelle is getting to know Mirembe, the subject of movies comes up. He scoffs at her love for American cinema: “What do we have besides superhero shit, remakes, and sequels to old movies nobody asked for?” And she concurs with the latter point: “This is true about sequels. If something is good, why ruin it?” Nothing like a movie that makes the case against itself!
• Okay, maybe it’s not ha-ha funny, but it’s worth noting that the opening credits include the line “Based on Characters Created by Eddie Murphy,” but the closing credits include a “Special Thanks to the Estate of Art Buchwald,” and, well, that’s a whole other story.