The ingenuity of Coffee and Kareem starts with whatever smirk you’re willing to toss its title and ends with its genetic recombination of Cop and a Half, Good Boys and insert-any-buddy-cop-movie-and-I-mean-absolutely-any-buddy cop movie.
It’s nowhere near the blend of boisterous laughs, believable danger and behavioral analysis that director Michael Dowse delivered in last summer’s unexpectedly solid Stuber. It also lacks Stuber’s inherent visual delight of Dave Bautista resembling a Mario Brother on HGH. But it does have Betty Gilpin (Netflix’s series GLOW) dropping comic-timing depth charges as a stressed-out detective — who treats mishaps that befall her like a business meeting gone bad in a way that introduces believable mania (and workplace pettiness) to counter her intensity. Maybe it’s Dowse doing her a solid after her minimized appearance in Stuber. There are also some fun throwaway references to Blade and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.
Essentially, this Netflix film — which premieres today on the streaming service — is almost certain to benefit from captive audiences’ currently heightened anxieties and diminished expectations.
Ed Helms, who also produces, stars as James Coffee, a Detroit beat cop in hot water after he allows drug dealer Orlando Johnson (RonReaco Lee) to escape police custody. Not much has gone right in James’s life, but he does have a healthy romantic relationship with Vanessa Manning (Taraji P. Henson), a nurse and single mother to 12-year-old Kareem (Terrence Little Gardenhigh, making his film debut). James is eager to extend genial goodwill to Kareem, but that’s hard to do given that Kareem is actively conspiring to murder James — or, at the very least, paralyze him from the waist down “so his dick don’t work.”
Yes, this is how we meet Kareem, who goes on to deliver an in-class rap fantasy about oral sex with his teacher, zing James with Johnnie Cochran references, perpetuate the falsity that James is sexually abusing him, and refer to pretty much everyone with whom he disagrees as a bitch or a motherfucker. That’s just in the first 15 minutes, shocking less for its content than for just how voluminous Kareem’s volleys of vitriol out of the gate. What he does or says is never really presented as any sort of boisterous pre-teen defense mechanism. Instead, Kareem is there to be a precocious, R-rated joke-machine counterpart to James’s straitlaced samaritan. It’s hard to gauge Gardenhigh’s aptitude as a performer based on how terribly the character has been written by screenwriter Shane Mack — whose name might rhyme with this genre’s sensei but whose work can’t even begin to echo it. But Gardenhigh can rat-a-tat profanity like a champ.
Kareem’s murder-or-maiming-for-hire scheme goes awry when he witnesses the execution of a corrupt cop. Soon, James and Kareem find themselves both on the run from the cops — as someone dirty has framed James for the crime — and with some unexpected time to bond.
So uninspired are the early moments of Coffee and Kareem that not even the extras can be bothered to respond to a character running down a sidewalk and firing a gun. Neither is the film any sort of stealth satire equipped to send up scenarios in which that might be business as usual. That’s not to say there are no jokes about poverty or race in Coffee and Kareem, just shockingly terrible ones — especially in a moment where James and Kareem have to commandeer an upwardly mobile black man’s vehicle. It’s all cringe with none of the comedy.
Coffee and Kareem eventually parts ways with rancid jokes about presumption and prejudice for showcase sequences featuring Henson, Gilpin and David Alan Grier, playing James’s father-figure police captain. Nearly the entire final half-hour is turned over to maniacal action sequences that Dowse and his cinematographer, Brian Burgoyne, have done a laudable job filming on their own rather than turning it over to a different second unit. Of note: a car chase that takes an unexpected detour into a roundabout and a lunatic-fringe final shootout that feels, at least in terms of bullets expended, like True Romance on laughing gas. While it’s never on the level of Hot Fuzz — even though Helms empties a clip in frustration a la Johnny Utah in Point Break — it’s a commendable turnabout from the film’s torpor.
Look: Is your bar as low as your energy right now? Does a new buddy-cop movie sound diverting enough? You got Netflix? Choose this over the endless, listless Spenser Confidential.