Coming to America is one of those comedies which may rightfully be referred to as a "classic" within Eddie Murphy's filmography. Even after 30 years, it remains a warm and funny film, with only a few raunchy scenes and even fewer faults. The final production was a nice creative change of pace for the star and director John Landis and deserves a commemorative Blu-ray presentation. Unfortunately, Paramount has decided to celebrate this 30th anniversary by warming over and serving up a re-release of the "old" 2007 transfer and supplements. Still, for fans and the mainstream, this title is worth getting and therefore highly recommended if you don't own it already.
For Eddie Murphy fans, Coming to America may be seen as just another hit film from a superstar comedian whose every 1980s appearance was pure cinematic gold. However, unlike his other star vehicles, this film does away with grit and violence (exemplified by Beverly Hills Cop and The Golden Child) and allows audiences to see another side of the actor without depriving them of the wit and hilarity he's known for. Arsenio Hall and a team of excellent supporting actors (including John Amos, Paul Bates and Madge Sinclair) elevate this otherwise routine, cross-cultural love story into a satisfying comedy from beginning to end.
The story follows Prince Akeem (Murphy) of Zamunda, Africa and his friend Semmi (Arsenio Hall) on their journey to America, and more specifically, Queens, New York. A young man of royalty and luxury, Akeem is in search of the perfect bride to be ("I want a woman who will arouse my intellect as well as my loins") and has 40 days to do so before he marries his pre-arranged bride. His father King Jaffe (James Earl Jones at his most entertainingly bombastic) encourages his son to sow his wild oats before the marriage, and Akeem takes his journey into manhood and maturity by leaving the comfort of his kingdom to the more "humble" environment of urban America.
Once in the States, he disguises himself as a foreign student and adapts to the less-than-royal culture by taking a job at a suspiciously familiar fast-food restaurant called McDowell's owned and operated by Cleo McDowell (John Amos). Cleo is a hard-working father who only wants financial security for his two daughters Lisa (Shari Headley), a down-to-earth woman who is courted by the arrogant, rich boy Darryl (Eriq La Salle), and Patrice (Allison Dean) who is more socially ambitious and takes a liking to Murphy. Predictably, Eddie falls for Lisa and tries to win her heart without revealing his background, but things go awry when the King and Queen (Madge Sinclair) come to visit their son, intent on bringing him back to his country to fulfill his marital destiny.
Arguably, Coming to America is one of Murphy's warmest and most personally creative movies, outside of special effects extravaganzas like The Nutty Professor and The Adventures of Pluto Nash. Some minor controversy followed the film upon its release (it's treatment of his candidate brides as being subservient, the parody of African-American cultural celebrations, and general sexism in the fictional nation of Zamunda were among the primary protests), but by and large it's nearly family friendly with the exception of a topless scene (done briefly, and not too lasciviously), a few hyper-exaggerated F-bombs as well as some "adult situations" (however they may be defined). Unlike his prior films, Murphy's character is not personally required to be street-wise or assume caricatures. As Prince Akeem, he is a simple and sincere young man in search of romance and commitment. He is likable without being too boringly goody-goody. Hall is also good as the friend who finds it difficult to adapt to the "lower" class, but remains sympathetic, and the two share good chemistry. However, Murphy does get to strut his stuff under different supporting characters, including a barber who tells tall tales to impress, an old Jewish man who hangs out at the barber shop, and as Randy Watson, lead singer of "Sexual Chocolate" and whose cover of "The Greatest Love of All" is a high point in the movie. Hall gets to do the same as a over-the-top preacher and as a woman who is an active part of the singles scene. The make-up work and their characterizations are convincing and the results are pretty damn funny (even moreso, I think, than Murphy's work in The Nutty Professor). Allowing both Murphy and Hall to assume different personas is a great way to explore their talent without having to deviate from their lead roles.
Other comedic moments are non-essential to the plot, but certainly enhance the light mood. They include a commercial for a hair product called "Soul Glo," a brief reference to the corporate "misunderstanding" between McDonald's and McDowell's ("they have the golden arches, we have the golden arcs"), Louie Anderson's appearance as an ambitious fast food worker, and cameo appearances by Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy in a clear reference to their memorable characters from Trading Places. I must also point out that Paul Bates, as stoic and stately palace servant Oha, is particularly funny when he in the spotlight. His emotionally charged, operatic love ballad to the Prince and his Queen-to-be is a nuanced but standout performance.
As expected, there is not much violence or physical action in this romance, with the exception of one segment where a gunman (Samuel L. Jackson at his loudest, as always) attempts to rob McDowell's and Eddie saves the day. Interestingly, this scene closely resembles the memorable moment in Beverly Hills Cop where Axel Foley disarms a thug by tripping him up. Whether this scene was meant to be an homage to the other is anyone's guess. However, bits like these allow for repeated viewing even with the main storyline become predictable.
Unlike other Landis films, sensationalism and cynicism are generally kept to a minimum, allowing the predominantly black cast to avoid any cultural insensitivity or racist stereotypes especially when it comes to African culture. There are times when good taste may be in question (a curious Raheem puts his bride-to-be to test with a series of humiliating commands; a murdered seeing-eye dog is outlined in white tape) but the movie never pushes it to the point of utter tackiness. This is a comedy, after all, and all humor needs some sort of edge. The movie really is a pleasant viewing experience, and all characters are treated with respect. Compare this film with the unfunny hysteria found in Murphy's later movies like Harlem Nights and Norbit, and it's easy to see why mainstream audiences found Coming to America a kinder, gentler and more enjoyable kind of movie.
Following my review, I did some online research where it was revealed that nothing has been remastered or updated for this 30th-anniversary edition. As with Trading Places, the transfer and supplements are the same as 2007's original production. Once again, it's a shame that something more special wasn't made for this 1980's near-classic, which certainly qualifies as one of Eddie Murphy's best work.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Both movie and bonus materials come on a single platter 25 GB disc, packed in a Blu-ray keepcase and wrapped in a slipcover. An insert revealing the Digital download code is provided, but nothing else in the way of supplements. Once the disc popped in, the movie opens up with the Paramount menu and then an animated table of contents.
Coming to America is presented in high definition 1080p video, preserving its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.78:1 on an AVC/MPEG-4 encoded disc. Considering that this is a transfer from over a decade ago, I was shocked to see that the picture looked close to excellent (for an 80s film) and certainly better than any television broadcasts that may have played this film over the years. There is a certain "look" to Landis's films, where the photography is usually bright and shot at a flat angle, almost like a television sitcom. The digital transfer preserves that style for better or for worse. If I knew the movie was going to look this good, I would have picked up the title earlier.
Colors really shine at the beginning and end of the film, especially when it comes to the elaborate costumes and sets in Zamunda. Bright reds and shimmering golds look impressive without looking unrealistic or hyper-exaggerated. Of course, most of the overall countryside is composed of matte paintings but even these look picturesque and easier on the eyes than some garish digital background. Also, I kept staring at Murphy's jewelry and other bling, wondering if I could detect flaws in the paint job due to the exposed fine detials. Although clarity is excellent in close-ups (good enough to admire the make-up work during the barber scenes), some medium and far shots are a bit inconsistent, which is probably due to the cinematography than the digital transfer. A new transfer would have been welcome, but this one should not to be dismissed.
It would not be too surprising to say that the overall audio quality for this 2007 master of a 1989 film is merely quite adequate. The soundtrack is presented in 5.1 Dolby Digital surround, but ambient effects and low bass are rarely emphasized. The audio does come alive during busier scenes of crowd activity, or when pop music is heard. The opening African dance number at the beginning of the film does show off the 5.1 soundtrack, but not necessarily worthy of a home demo,
Clearly, this is not a film where directionality and dynamic range will "wow" audiophiles. For any comedy, distinct and clear voices are what's most important, and Coming to America certainly lives up to that standard. Dolby Digital tracks offering French in 2.0 and Spanish in mono are also available as options.
The bonus materials for a movie of this age are pretty good for a 2007 release, but less for one purportedly celebrating a 30th anniversary. Most of the extras are surprisingly free from the standard fluff and puff found in today's publicity materials and add to one's appreciation of the film.
Composing America: The Musical Talents of Nile Rodgers (SD 2.0) (11:09) - This profile of the legendary composer, songwriter, and performer spotlights his contribution to the movie's soundtrack.
Fit for Akeem: The Costumes of Coming to America (SD 2.0) (18:05) - As with the Trading Places Blu-ray, director John Landis provides a behind the scenes look at the costumes created by his wife, Deborah Nadoolman. Naturally, he heaps praise after praise, admittedly with some justification.
A Vintage Sit-Down with Eddie and Arsenio (SD 2.0) (5:38) - This playful interview was apparently taken from a 1989 publicity tour, and focuses on Murphy and Hall. Interestingly, the first question asks "where did the idea for Coming to America come from?" and the answer may fascinate those familiar with the lawsuit involving Art Buchwald and Paramount Pictures.
Prince-ipal Photography: The Coming Together of America (SD 2.0) (24:39) - Director John Landis and other cast and crew provide insight into the making of the movie, with behind the scenes clips into the production and commentary on all the principal actors.
Character Building: The Many Faces of Rick Baker (SD 2.0) (12:55) - Veteran special effects and makeup artist Rick Baker is the focus of this featurette, which plays special focus of transforming Murphy into a crotchety Jewish guy without going over-the-top. Since this is one of the most clever parts of the movie, it's fun to see just how it was all done.
Photo Gallery - A collection of stills is provided with the ability to manually advance to the next frame. It appears that a lot of the photos were captured from the movie and not actual production photos, but it's difficult to tell given the low-resolution quality.
Trailer (SD 2.0) (2:46) - This well-edited preview, looking unrestored but in pretty good shape, summarizes the plot and sells the movie well.
While I resent that branding of this Blu-ray as "Celebrating the 30th Anniversary" without adding anything new or improved, I can't fault its contents which are more than fitting for a movie this old. It's a testament to the 2007 release that this repackaging may good enough to satisfy hardcore fans who are first-time buyers. Perhaps it will take a 4K edition to merit a remaster, and perhaps in addition to the bonus materials we can see the rarely seen pilot to the abandoned TV series spin-off, or even a retrospective of the lawsuits which occurred over creative credit to this film. Even if Coming to America isn't a universal comedy favorite among Murphy fans (it seems that 48 Hours, Beverly Hills Cop and Trading Places might pull rank), I really enjoyed the movie and am pleased to finally have it in my collection. Therefore, this disc is highly recommended for those who have never purchased it before in any format.