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Coffee & Kareem Surges for Maximum Sarcastic Sacrilege of All Involved

Image by Justina Mintx for Netflix

The posters for Netflix’s latest action comedy Coffee & Kareem (which is silly already because it would never see a theater, with or without a pandemic shutdown) have been trying to splash its stars Ed Helms and youngster Terrence Little Gardenhigh in classic poses, fashions, and fonts from Beverly Hills Cop, 48 Hours, and Die Hard. The crack marketing department is really trying to get your nostalgic attention for the violent and raunchy R-rated cop movie of old with this Photoshop power play. Catch a whiff right here of this April 3rd new release:

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Those posters clearly catch the eye, but once Coffee & Kareem attempts to evoke the promotional notion that it is worthy of standing next to classic giants like those three films as a homage or even as an lesser riff, it’s asking to bomb.

This quickly becomes about not being something you’re not. When you fail, even intentionally, you become one more shitty cop movie from a generation ago. Does someone get an award somewhere from some lofty agency of aficionados when you make a shitty cop movie precisely as shitty as the old shitty cop movies this shitty cop movie emulates and remembers? Is that a Razzie or something else?

James Coffee is a mustachioed and divorced peace officer in the city of Detroit who naively loves Hall & Oates, upholding the law, helping people, and, yeah, yeah, yeah, the straight do-gooder wussy stuff you would expect. He is a complete dolt, played by the actor with the most locked-in doltish gear in the business in Helms. With a salt-grained hint of spice, James is bedding Taraji P. Henson’s hot, black, and widowed nurse named Vanessa. She is the mother of Kareem, her pudgy and fast-talking teenage son, played by the feature-debuting TV actor Gardenhigh.

Vanessa Manning seduces John Coffee with a smile in a doorway.
Image by Justina Mintz for Netflix

In more than the usual “so many words,” Kareem doesn’t like where Coffee’s nightstick has been. He plots to pay off a popular juvenile convict named Orlando (RonReaco Lee) to rough the dorky cop up to scare him away from his mom on a day when Coffee is picking the teen up from school. Orlando is, coincidentally, a collar Coffee embarrassingly lost which resulted in office chiding from his superior (Betty Glipin, recently of The Hunt) and a traffic duty demotion from his captain (a gray-bearded David Alan Grier).

Ed Helms tries to lean towards Kareem Manning while parked in a cop car together.
Image by Justina Mintz for Netflix

In propositioning the former hood, Kareem (and a tailing Coffee) are caught at the scene of a cop execution, one that Kareem records on social media. In the cross hairs of their own at-odds foolishness, the titular duo find themselves mixed up in dirty cops, tasers, drug deals, media-spun kidnapping confusions, gun play, constant racial and homophobic faux pas, and a heap of danger that will get them both in boiling hot water with Vanessa, let alone iced-down toe-tagging coroners and other higher authorities.

Coffee & Kareem surges for maximum sarcastic sacrilege out of all involved. Lovers of good roasts laced with compound obscenities will have much to love. Especially with Terrence Little Gardenhigh, this is way past Kids Say the Darndest Things. The savage vitriolic humor he spews, whether it’s scripted or ad-libbed, is snappy for sure and also vile beyond comprehension at some points. The second best stinger in the hive is Betty Gilpin busting balls like they were loaded in a Whac-A-Mole machine.

Vanessa, Kareem, and John Coffee watch the criminals talk from behind the cover of metal boxes.
Image by Justina Mintz for Netflix

Thanks to the profanity, the loudest and bluntest message this movie has is trying to present all of the possible insecure posturing males attempt when trying to think and be tough. They exaggerate. They lie. Their mouths get them in trouble. They get called out on it, and they furiously flail and fail. That’s not exciting. That’s sophomoric.

Returning to the opening rant, where Coffee & Kareem treads on greatness and fails miserably in trying to be a tacky tribute to comedy gold is in the stakes department. As irreverent as Eddie Murphy or Bruce Willis ever got in their iconic wiseacre roles, their movies had actual peril and imposing boundaries. There was either an authority figure peer or an indomitable villain (often both) that always grounded the kite-flying humor back to the grit that was a tried and true cop movie. With that edge, the humor was wiser and the body counts mattered because one of them could, at any point, become the protagonist or someone they or you cared about.

Zero of that level of sharpness or heft exists in Coffee & Kareem, directed by Stuber helmer Michael Dowse, who knows his way around the ’80s with his career peak Take Me Home Tonight. The closest you get is Taraji P. Henson staring holes through ignorance, shouting more F-words, slapping tastes out of mouths, and whipping ass in her fleeting Pam Grier-esque moments to dominate. That was never going to Gilpin’s rival or any of the gun-toting henchmen. Instead, the best you get is some partial heart from the rangeless Ed Helms connecting with the kid and the attempt of sacrificing his well-being to save who he comes cares about. That’s weak sauce here.

At around the one-hour mark with just about 30 minutes remaining in this economical one-nighter, Coffee reaches a point where he bemoans Kareem “Just pull over and stop. Let them kill me. I’m done.” Boy, after the hour that was already had, filled with dumbfounded narrative and creative choices, fake trauma, and forgotten consequences, he ain’t kidding. Pass the bullet and the remote.

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Written by Don Shanahan

DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based and Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing on his website "Every Movie Has a Lesson" and also on Medium.com for the MovieTime Guru publication. He is also weekly movie trends columnist and occasional podcast contributor for the "Feelin' Film" podcast. As an middle school educator by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Indie Critics and a member of the nationally-recognized Online Film Critics Society.

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