Directed By Michael Dowse
Starring – Ed Helms, Taraji P. Henson, Terrence Little Gardenhigh
The Plot – While police officer James Coffee (Helms) enjoys his new relationship with Vanessa Manning (Henson), her beloved 12-year-old son Kareem (Gardenhigh) plots their break-up. Attempting to scare away his mom’s boyfriend for good, Kareem tries to hire criminal fugitives to take him out but accidentally exposes a secret network of criminal activity, making his family its latest target. To protect Vanessa, Kareem teams up with Coffee, the partner he never wanted, for a dangerous chase across Detroit.
Rated R for adult language, scenes of peril, and aggressive violence
– Rating blessing. Comedy is often an abstract litmus test that depends on people’s diverse range of humor to gage its success rate, and while “Coffee and Kareem” will ultimately finish nowhere near the top of the year-end list for best comedies even in a pandemic release year, the adult material definitely garnered what little beneficially that I did gain from it. Nothing is exceptionally original in the way the gags are constructed or progressed, but the punchlines surprisingly tugged at my gut quite consistently, and made this anything but a boring experience when judging my overall investment towards the picture. In fact, it’s the script’s immature edginess in its approach towards the material that often illustrates vibrantly the kind of world depicted in the film, which for better or worse is consequential in determining that every action has an equally impactful reaction, giving us jaunty banter in the form of two characters who couldn’t be any more opposite in their outlines.
– Smooth pacing. Clocking in at a mere 88 minutes, “Coffee and Kareem” never overstays its welcome, nor does it try to stretch itself into being something it rightfully isn’t, an unfortunate presence in Netflix original cinema. Instead, it’s a very linear narrative piece with very little downtime or sagging moments of exposition-heavy storytelling to cloud the bigger picture. This not only keeps the momentum rolling from scenes of physical engagement, but also makes the most of its screen time in ways that make each act pivotally balanced towards the film’s engaging climax. Despite the many bad things to say about this film as a whole, one thing in the win column for it is that it never bored me or left me uninterested to the dynamic of the many characters, despite so many surrounding issues working so prominently against it, and even with a home sitting that makes it even easier to grow dejected from a story, the entertaining factor constantly maintained my attention.
– Winks to the past. One cool aspect to the script that a movie addict like me appreciated was the many callbacks to legendary films of the action genre, like “Point Break” or “Scarface”, that the film references in extremely clever ways. I won’t spoil everything for you, but some examples involve the intentionally humorous attention towards unlimited bullets that are often called out as ridiculous in these types of movies. Likewise, Helms’ frustration with a character getting away at the end of the second act is a direct homage to Johnny Utah’s firing bullets to the sky in releasing anger. These elements are often easy to overlook, because they have become known as just another aspect of the buddy cop comedy staple, but Dowse’s direction with this and last summer’s “Stuber” proves that he’s a student of the game who has paid attention, and managed to bring those memories from his studying along for the ride to incorporate them where they will attain the highest level of nostalgic familiarity.
– Offensive stereotyping. This has to be at the top of the list, if only for the way its issues transcend film, and characterizes many problematic issues that exist in black youths by writing it in a way that asks for laughs because of such tragedies. If you can get past the angle of there not being one positive black role model anywhere in the film, you will then be smothered by a white cop savior who not only gets to bang the mother of the story’s troubled protagonist, but also see him catch a barrage of black criminals in a way that could raise some eyebrows in the body camera age of law enforcement. This is the man we are taught to admire and get behind, but what’s even more troubling than that is the youth in question here is nothing more than a foul-mouthed, slang-dominated troublemaker, whose only goal in life is to be a rap artist. If this is a reflection of the Mother, then it demeans the job that she has done as well, which in turn underscores her importance to the projection of the film. When you consider that a movie starring a white cop and black youth could’ve done so much exploring in the cultural unease that exists between both tribes, it’s a major disappointment that a movie settles itself for reaching for such low-hanging fruit that even in 2020 feels twenty years outdated. Films like these do nothing to silence the commotion against law enforcement, nor do they do anything to subdue racial prejudice. They are nothing more than pre-conceived toxic vitriol that only add to the divide that comes from such poisonous stereotyping. Shame on you.
– Weak writing. The character evolutions don’t exist, the subplots are redundant and derivative of bigger, better movies, and the dialogue is some of the very worst that I have seen in cinema thus far in 2020. This sums up everything as tightly as I can in one sentence, but examples prove points so much more fluidly. When the dialogue isn’t lessening the impact of curse words every other word, it’s stretching humor in a way that sounds childish and insubstantial of any meaning to justify its existence. One such example exists in Helms’ character calling Gardenhigh “A dick and an ass. You’re a dass”. Lines like these got by the final draft of the script. In addition to these, no character feels changed, nor does any relationship feel fully earned. This is seen in the blossoming friendship of the two male leads, who never have a moment that makes each of them important to the other, but instead has the dialogue tell us many times throughout. This show-not-tell approach is not only difficult in terms of believability, but also shallow in how it stacks the building blocks of their foundation. It makes so much of this script feel like it was assembled on auto-pilot, and succeeds at crafting a film where nothing enclosed is remotely memorable for longer than a half hour after you see it.
– Lack of urgency. I blame this solely on the direction, because even in a film with two protagonists against a drug gang, the Detroit police department, and an entire city on watch from a slew of news reports framing Helms, there isn’t even a shred of a race against the clock to feed into the anxiety of the audience at home. Perhaps expecting this gave me too much confidence in a film that has been done better with the same structure at least twenty other times off of the top of my head, but the film can’t escape this rushed element of storytelling that undercuts the kind of tonal maturity that the film so desperately required, and outlines each scene of temporary turmoil with this contradicting tone of light-hearted atmosphere that plays more into Helms personality instead of the seedy crime underworld that he has walked into. Without any humbling drama to balance, our protagonists never feel the weight of their opposition, and makes their unfortunate plights feel nothing more than temporary to us the invested audience at home.
– Wasted potential. If nothing else, the talented ensemble cast drew me into the movie, and made this one that I knew I had to review. Unfortunately, the entirety of this cast comes up bankrupt in depressingly different ways, giving us a complete lack of even one credible performance between six top stars. First of all, there’s the unused. This is seen through Henson, who only appears when the film absolutely requires her to, David Alan Grier, who is in two scenes in the entire film, and Andrew Bachelor, who plays second fiddle in a film where he is the established antagonist. Then there’s the detestable in Helms and Gardenhigh, two protagonists who are every bit annoying as they are completely one-dimensional. Helms “White” straight man rubs free of its charm about twenty minutes in, and Gardenhigh’s obnoxiously loud profanity gave me a headache (Seriously) for the entirety of the film. Finally, the tragic. This comes in the form of Betty Gilpin, who has amassed quite a career over the last three years. She’s usually the show-stealer in any film, but here is directed so over-the-top and meandering that it completely rids her of all of her charms, and devalues a screen presence that elicits fun in any role she takes on.
– Stale action. The set pieces in the film are few and far between, but beyond that lack any semblance of cinematic imagination to make them pop in a way that is visually entrancing. Most of it is seen through hand-to-hand combat that is shot conventionally underwhelming and tight enough to limit any chance of seeing fight choreography that is clearly going through the motions, but beyond that the grounded cinematography of Brian Burgoyne wields a routine shot composition that doesn’t challenge or complex angles in a way that adds to the intensity of the engagements. It makes for a presentation void of any kind of identity or scale for its set pieces, and has no reservations about constantly alluding to a minimalist budget that keeps it from feeding the ambition that comes with filmmaking.
– By the numbers. To say that this film is underwhelming because of its production value alone would be doing a huge disservice to the predictability of the screenplay that doesn’t offer a single instance of surprise anywhere in the film. As with most child buddy cop movies, this one follows a familiar formula that makes it easily comparable to other films of the subgenre, but beyond that it’s the way that each twist is easily detectable with the way they limit the appeal of certain characters. This shouldn’t come as a spoiler since the trailer even hints a higher power in charge of everything, but the film’s originally established antagonist is so poorly realized, and given no time to make him appealing or threatening to Coffee’s plan to shut him down. So almost immediately you know someone else is commanding the strings behind the scene, and with the movie focusing on such a minimal cast of characters it should take you all of five seconds to figure out who that figure is. This and everything entailed keeps “Coffee and Kareem” from ever finding its own voice of originality, and instead feels like a collection of scenes from other movies that did it bigger, better, and most importantly; first.
– One glaring blooper. To anyone paying attention, keep your eyes on the body camera of Officer Coffee, that appears and disappears at least two different times in the film, for the convenience of the ongoing subplot. Why could this be? Well, with a connection to the police department it would clear him of the conspiracy that is being presented against him in the media, as well as bust the drug mastermind in about five minutes of screen time to the delight of the audience subjected to this flimsy conflict. This is never addressed or even remotely hinted at, with the exception of what we pay our attention towards, and even in a film as poorly put together as this film truly is, a blunder this monumental makes it virtually insurmountable at overcoming the inability to even immerse ourselves in the logic of the world in the film.
My Grade: 3/10 or F+