Written by: Joe Lollo
A movie featuring a guy being dismembered right at the start of its Netflix trailer can mean one of two things: it’s either gonna have great violence or it’s gonna be straight-up torture porn. Coffee & Kareem is the exception.
In Netflix’s new cop comedy, director Michael Dowse took a note from his 2019 Kumail Nanjiani-led sleeper hit Stuber, as this film follows its formula to a T but replaces the funny foreign guy with a sort-of-funny kid. Unfortunately, it’s doesn’t work as well, so Dowse and his team throw everything at the wall and see what sticks.
The film is completely disorienting at times. Adult-kid team-up movies are typically targeted at kids – think of films like Cop and a Half, The Game Plan, and the delayed My Spy – these films are (mostly) funny, and have a chance of teaching kids a few important lessons about the values of family, teamwork, and the like. By contrast, Coffee & Kareem is R-rated, packed with profanity, toilet humor, and gory violence. On a surface level, it seems like the kind of movie kids would watch to seem “edgy.” The jokes are a hit-or-miss, unfortunately with more misses, on subjects such as the ACAB movement, Bernie Sanders, Twitter calling out racists, and the keto diet, but the violence feels out-of-place around them, with exploding buildings, severed body parts, and even implied domestic abuse (female on male abuse at that).
The two tones don’t really go well together in this film, but they echo “hard-R kids” films like Good Boys, which worked because the “violent” scenes were mostly based around bullying and hazing – something all kids have experienced in some way. I don’t think many kids have experienced someone’s hand being cut off and then that same person being shot and killed. The two elements that this film seems to use – “a kid swearing is funny” and “let’s watch people get graphically tortured” – are not mutually exclusive, but the transitions are handled awfully. It’s definitely not a kid’s film, but many adults wouldn’t really get much out of it except for some cool action sequences.
The plot feels like some sort of sitcom more than a feature film. Detroit police officer James Coffee (Ed Helms) is planning on marrying his girlfriend, an emergency nurse named Vanessa (Taraji P. Henson). Understandably, Vanessa’s 10-year-old son Kareem (Terrence Little Gardenhigh) isn’t having it. Knowing his possible future stepfather is a cop, Kareem asks a group of local gangsters to frighten Coffee out of Detroit. Unfortunately, he and Coffee witness the murder of another cop and are forced to go on the run as corrupt cops, people Coffee thought were his friends, frame him for the killing. Kareem is enjoying it at first, but when they start to threaten him and his mom, he has to form an unlikely ally in Coffee to stop them, learning more about and appreciating his new father figure as the film goes on.Most of Kareem’s schtick is swearing way more than a kid is supposed to, and Coffee just feels like Andy, Helms’ beloved character from The Office, except as a cop.
Luckily, their pairing and dialogue are some of the most passable parts of this film. Taraji P. Henson is great, as always, but it’s this film and a few others that she’s done recently that prove she needs a new agent. It’s not totally clear until later in the film that it’s meant more for adults than for a younger audience, and the performances don’t really seem to swing one way or the other — with the exception of how much cursing Gardenhigh is given to do. The action scenes are honestly great, especially the slow-motion sequences and explosion scenes, and the script is ultimately passable to funny, while Helms, Henson, and Gardenhigh’s performances are solid enough to keep things enjoyable until the movie finds its feet. It’s a mediocre film, but there are enjoyable moments here and there, ones that may prove it’s worth the watch.