Coming to America

This is one of my favorite Eddie Murphy movies, and one of both his and John Landis’s last good ones. Trading Places is better, but this simple story of an African prince looking for his queen- in Queens of all places- is a rightful late 80s classic. It showcases outer borough New York like The Blues Brothers did Chicago, is delightfully quotable, and shows Eddie and Arsenio Hall back when they were both very funny and knew that dressing up as multiple characters is better as a quick gag than an entire movie. It also has bit parts with then-unknown Cuba Gooding Jr. and Samuel L. Jackson, John Amos in one of his best roles, James Earl Jones fresh from retirement as Vader playing another king with a stentorian voice, and a cute rom-com story that never gets too sappy. What’s not to like?

Yes, I am angry and curse in this film.

We begin in Zamunda, where Prince Akeem (Murphy) wakes on his 21st birthday. He is pampered beyond belief, and we get to see the absurd reality of being so rich that you don’t have to wipe your own backside, and have three gorgeous women bathe you every morning. But like anything, too much is too much- and Akeem wants to experience life- real life- something he has been denied for far too long. When he meets the bride who’s been picked for him and raised her entire life to serve him, he asks his father- King Jaffe Joffer, played with bombastic relish by James Earl Jones- for a respite. How can he choose a wife when he has never even tied his own shoes?

Is that real velvet?

Before he can protest, the King assumes he wants to “sow his royal oats,” and postpones the wedding for 40 days, so he can travel the world and sate his every erotic desire. His servant Semmi (Arsenio Hall) is delighted, and soon they are off to search for a bride worthy of Zamunda’s only prince. And when looking at a map of New York, they find the perfect place- Queens. It’s to John Landis’s credit that he actually films in Queens instead of Toronto, or Jersey, or even Manhattan. ’80s New York wasn’t the Disneyfied place it is today, and we see it warts and all. But we get a portrait of the city at the time, and like the late ’70s Chicago that served as the perfect backdrop for The Blues Brothers, the setting is as important a character as the stars.


Cuba gets a cut

Once Akeem and Semmi get settled in “the most common part” of Queens, they find a shitty apartment run by a gruff landlord above a barbershop, and jobs at “McDowell’s” restaurant, run by Mr. McDowell (John Amos), at odds with the more famous and similar-sounding fast food joint we all know. From here on, the plot is classic screwball rom-com, with a rich but sleazy suitor, the father who knows best, and the prince masquerading as a pauper, or at least, an African student. We know Akeem will end up with Lisa- McDowell’s beautiful and independent daughter- but the story uses subtle distractions to keep the tension up.

Tell that Juno girl I want my phone back.

Landis gives us plenty of “cute cuts” like reaction shots of a poodle, bums, and little children; Eddie breaking the fourth wall; and corny one-off background gags on New York City to keep the comic energy lively. It’s probably the last time Eddie was really funny for a long while. Part of the reason is that he has no muzzle on- the cursing is loud and wide. From the moment Akeem stands on his balcony and declares, “Good morning my neighbors!” and they reply “Hey, fuck you!” we know that Landis is capitalizing on the raw reputation Murphy’s stand-up act. They spend their cussin’ coin wisely and don’t overdo it, except perhaps in the barbershop scenes, where Murphy and Arsenio play cranky old men telling tall tales.

This is some of Murphy’s best multiple-role work, and Arsenio almost tops him. Here Murphy plays the cranky old barber and a cranky old Jewish patron, and even argues with himself. And it’s funny even when we don’t recognize he’s talking to himself. The final joke he tells at the end credits is so good that it works even on its own. Another scene where Semmi & Akeem go to a club and listen to crazy women talk about what they want is even better. When Arsenio is in drag, Murphy can barely keep a straight face, that’s how funny it is.

“I wanna tear you apart.”

It’s one of those rare comedies that relies on character, and rolls toward a pre-ordained and satisfying ending without insulting our intellect. There are no long scenes where someone gets offended, because the other person doesn’t say one thing. Akeem keeps up his ruse as a poor student a bit too long, but there’s not one scene where he could just admit it, and everything would be okay. Landis knows better than that. And everything is solved perfectly when Akeem’s mom, Queen Aoleon (Madge Sinclair), shows how wives of powerful men get their way by making the kings think they’re getting their way.

The bathers- it’s good to be the king

The movie was originally conceived by columnist Art Buchwald, whose idea got stolen by the studio. Because if you believe something this good was written by the guys who did Police Academy 2, you’re crazy. It’s got Landis all over it. I’m glad Buchwald finally got a settlement from the studio, meager as it might be. And it doesn’t tarnish this great comedy. Even better, Landis manages to give us another look at what happened to the Dukes from Trading Places before it’s over. And I haven’t even mentioned Louie Anderson, the family who sells Soul-Glo hair tonic, Arsenio’s hilarious preacher character, or Eddie as the lead singer of Sexual Chocolate. Put it all together and you have an unforgettable comedy you can go back to again and again.

Beers Required to Enjoy: none!
Could it be remade today? don’t even think about it
Quotability Rating: ludicrously high
Cheese Factor: Zamunda cheese
High Points: too many to count
Low Point: it’s over?
Gratuitous Boobies: 3 naked girls in a hot tub. Yay.

48 Hrs. – Sully likes his Porsches!

I hadn’t seen 48 Hrs. in years, so when it came on cable in the highest definition possible I had to watch it again. I was pleasantly surprised. I like this movie a lot better than the more successful Beverly Hills Cop, because I get sick of Murphy’s annoying laugh in it. In this one, he’s still funny but everything is much more gritty and serious. “Jolty Nolte” is Jack Cates, the gravelly, grungy cop who needs his help tracking down a vicious escaped convict.

Like Jack Cates, I drive a shitty inconvenient gas-guzzling
convertible and never comb my hair.

The movie’s got some good songs- Walter Hill manages to get some good songs recorded for his movies. “In the City” by Joe Walsh from The Warriors; the songs from Streets of Fire, and “The Boys Are Back in Town” here, which became a minor hit. It’s a good rockin’ R&B song with honky tonk piano, and gives the Thin Lizzy song a run for its money.

The movie takes itself just seriously enough- the gunfights are like old Westerns where the revolvers have upwards of 12 rounds, cops pop out of nowhere to give the bad guys some cannon fodder, and our heroes break as many laws as the criminals in their pursuit of justice … or revenge.

The film is pretty brutal. The convicts start out by blasting a few chain gang guards and then a few cops on their tail; Nolte is backup for two of the cops, and he gives up his gun when they’ve got another cop dead in their sights. They shoot the cop with Nolte’s gun, but he escapes, and relentlessly pursues them. Eddie Murphy comes into the game straight from Saturday Night Live, in his first starring role. He’s brash, crude and funny without embracing the persona he’d use from Beverly Hills Cop onward; in 48 Hrs. and Trading Places he was less sure of himself and wasn’t marketed as a star, so he plays a real character. Billy Ray Valentine and Reggie Hammond are two of his best.

The film is one of the last I remember where the n-word was thrown around with relative abandon by whites and blacks alike. It stares the racial divide right in the face, and lets Nolte and Murphy brawl it out right in the streets. Even the black police chief, played perfectly by Frank McCrae, uses it. Eddie Murphy calls himself one to a bar full of rednecks. The movie records the late-70’s early-80’s cowboy craze, where every other bar seemed to have a mechanical bull and fucking Kenny Rogers on the jukebox. Cates gives Reggie his badge so he can rough up the bar and get the location of Billy Bear, the American Indian who broke the main bad guy Ganz out of prison.

Another suspect who helps lead them to Ganz is Luther, played by David Patrick Kelly- Sully from Commando. He’s actually sympathetic here, the sad sack who gets a Cadillac door to the crotch from Reggie, and later has his girlfriend held hostage by the bad guys. Sully is just one link to Commando in this movie; it also has a steel drum soundtrack by James Horner, and Sully drives a Porsche! Sure, it’s Reggie’s car and a different model, but I wonder if Mr. Kelly takes these roles based on whether he gets to drive a Porsche or not.

48 Hrs.Commando

The movie is a bit formulaic but the action is very good, and I’d put it up there with the first Lethal Weapon as a buddy movie. The chemistry is that good, though the races are reversed as to who the funny man is. The sequel, Another 48 Hours wasn’t nearly as good, but wasn’t as terrible as Lethal Weapon 3 and 4. If you haven’t seen this in a while, or have only seen it cut for TV, give it another try. It’s a damn good movie.