Buddy cop movies are like comfort food. It only takes a few simple ingredients to transform a film like Coffee & Kareem into something delicious.
Here’s the basic recipe: Take two people with almost nothing in common (one of them doesn’t even have to be a cop) and force them to work together to solve a case. They don’t get along at first – often enough, they would rather eat live eels than work with their partner – but over time, they develop a mutual respect.
When the recipe works, you have the action-comedy equivalent of a five-star meal. The buddy cop genre gives charismatic actors the ultimate platform to let their star shine bright. 48 Hours, Lethal Weapon, and Rush Hour deliver addictive blends of ass-kicking and witty banter. That’s why these three films still hold up decades after they hit theatres.
When the buddy cop formula is off ever so slightly, things get messy fast. (See Cop Out, Top Dog, and Theodore Rex).
On its surface, Coffee and Kareem from director Michael Dowse (Goon, Stuber) has the makings of a solid buddy cop film. Shane Mack’s script brings most of the right genre elements to the table. James Coffee (Ed Helms) is a by-the-numbers cop and a major wimp. Kareem (Terrence Little Gardenhigh) is a street-smart 12-year-old with a chip on his shoulder. All that’s left to do is pair them up and let the hijinks ensue. Right?
Kareem comes home one morning and finds Coffee having sex with his mom (Taraji P. Henson), and he takes it as an act of war. Kareem hires some gangsters to kick Coffee’s ass and lures the unsuspecting cop into a trap. But when they arrive at the gangster’s hideout, Kareem sees a crooked cop get murdered, and he and Coffee are forced to run for their lives. Before long, the police and the criminals are both out for Coffee and Kareem’s blood, and the unlikely duo must work together to avoid capture and clear their names.
Coffee & Kareem is a great concept that fails in its execution. Helms is perfect in the role of the bumbling cop who nobody takes seriously. He’s Andy from The Office but with a gun and badge. And Gardenhigh brings the heat as Kareem, a world-class shit-talker. Like any great buddy movie, the picture’s success lives or dies based on their chemistry, and this is where the Coffee & Kareem comes up short.
The script does a poor job developing the characters and so the two leads often come off as grating. The lack of empathy between the two makes their snarky back and forth feel corrosive. It’s not that Kareem doesn’t like Coffee, the child’s hatred for him is malicious. Remember, he tries to pay cop-killing thugs to whoop Coffee’s ass. That’s a ruthless starting point for a budding friendship. It doesn’t help that Gardenhigh never dials down his audacious performance. He’s at maximum volume all the time, and it’s a lot to take. I’m a sucker for movies with foul-mouthed kids – Good Boys is a perfect example. More times than not, Kareem comes across as a dick; crude, overbearing, and juvenile.
As for the humour? Well, it’s problematic, to say the least. The putdowns and quips are so misogynistic and homophobic you would think they were written by a couple battle rappers in 1992. In Coffee & Kareem, seeming gay is scarier than looking down the barrel of a gun. And many of the insults stem from emasculation through insinuation. The film isn’t lacking genuinely funny (and inoffensive) moments, but they are few and far between.
What’s most interesting about the film is the way Dowse treats the story as an African American power fantasy. Thematically, you can frame Coffee & Kareem as the anti-Green Book. Green Book saw a rough around the edges white man escort a cultured black man through the segregated American south. Coffee & Kareem flips the script, giving us a hood-smart child protecting a goofy cop who acts as though he stumbled out of a Police Academy movie.
We all know about the fraught relationship between black Americans and the police. For a time, it felt like you couldn’t turn on the TV without seeing a story about the cops shooting an unarmed black man. The black community have decades worth of pent-up tension, anxiety, and rage stemming from abuse at the hands of the police. Coffee & Kareem makes Helms’ police officer the ultimate stooge — it’s a form of wish fulfillment — and watching a cop repeatedly get clowned by a black kid scratches a very specific (and satisfying) type of itch.
Having a smart-ass kid talk down to an officer of the law is an appealing role reversal. Basically, it’s revenge porn. The jokes barely have to be funny to work as a form of cultural catharsis. Helms’ Coffee isn’t a fully-formed character so much as a stand-in for black America’s resentment towards racist cops. It’s like Americans watching Hulk Hogan pummel The Iron Sheik during the Gulf War, or seeing the Hulkster leg drop Nikolai Volkoff during the Cold War.
Coffee & Kareem’s entire cast comes off as walking caricatures who are tough to root for – the movie even somehow wastes a wild-eyed Betty Gilpin performance. Coffee is a flaccid joke, and Kareem never hard demeanour never softens enough for a meaningful bond to form between the duo, but the film still positions the pair as BFFs by the final act. This unlikely team may have each others’ back in a gun fight, but they never feel like real friends. Coffee & Kareem is a buddyless buddy cop movie.