The comedy duo of Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele rose to prominence through their sketch comedy show Key & Peele with their unique abilities to craft hilarious sketches that also highlighted a number of social issues – they’re also capable of just going plain silly, too. What elevated the sketches from Key & Peele into a new realm of sketch comedy was the incredibly cinematic feel that these three-minute sketches contained. These sketches didn’t just riff on the content of a certain genre, they riffed on the style behind the content as well. Naturally, expectations were high when it announced that Key and Peele would be headlining their own movie directed by Peter Atencio, who has directed most of the Key & Peele sketches, for Keanu, which sees the comedy duo posing as gangsters in order to rescue the world’s cutest cat. It’s a movie with plenty of laughs and uneven pacing. Keanu is funny, but never reaches the brilliance that we know Key & Peele to be capable of.
The film opens in a church that has been retrofitted to operate as a drug lab. A paranoid drug lord is entranced with a kitten when a duo hitmen enter and start shooting up the place. The killers known as the Allentown Brothers perform backflips while double-fisting guns, laying waste to every person around them. In the frenzied gun fire, the young kitten makes a desperate run towards freedom. This opening scene, which I enjoyed quite a bit, shows that there are limitations to parodying a style, as the action unfolds in slow motion like a classic John Woo shoot-‘em-up, but avoids any other jokes beyond its stylistic presentation. Simply, it’s a gag that will work incredibly well for a very small segment of the audience.
Across town, Rell (Peele) is still reeling with a recent break up. He lies on his couch smoking weed and lamenting lost love. His cousin Clarence (Key) is married with kids, content with his domestic life but is worried for his depressed cousin. As Clarence is on his way with some In-N-Out to cheer up his cousin, Rell discovers the adorable kitten on his doorstep, and takes the little fellow into his home, a bond already built between the two. A few weeks later, after watching the latest movie starring “Liam Neesons,” Rell returns home to find that his home has been broken into and Keanu is missing. Rell’s pot dealer Hulka (Will Forte) informs the two that the home might’ve been mistaken for his own and was likely broken into by the Blips, a gang comprised solely of rejects from the Bloods and Crips. Rell and Clarence pose as badasses and go to the Blips’ headquarters to speak to their leader Cheddar (Method Man). Claiming to be the Allentown Brothers, Rell and Clarence agree to help the Blips with drug dealing and for payment they want the cat which Cheddar acquired in the break-in.
A majority of the comedy in Keanu comes from the duo pretending to be something they’re not – a couple of badass gangsters. This aspect of the premise has its limitations and mostly gets by on the gusto in the performances from Key and Peele, both incredibly talented performers. The script by Peele and Alex Rubens really could’ve been tighter, as good chunks of don’t have the manic consistency to become a comic masterpiece. The gags that don’t involve the cat or George Michael mostly fall flat, but the excellent performances from the two leads and the supporting cast make it easy to overlook the deficiencies.
Of course, there’s a romantic interest for Rell in the gangster character of Hi-C (Tiffany Haddish), who operates with a hard edge that slowly begins to soften. One of the funnier moments of the movie is a drug deal with Hi-C and Rell that goes bad (there’s also a surprise cameo that I won’t dare spoil). As the two try to deal this new kind of drug, Clarence is his minivan with other members of the Blips teaching them about the brilliance of George Michael. Following this, George Michael and his music becomes an excellent recurring gag, culminating in a drug trip hallucination where Clarence finds himself in the music video for “Faith.”
It’s still somewhat disappointing that Keanu never touches on any of the potential racial politics of its scenario. What’s more disappointing is the fact that often Keanu peddles in genre predictability without subverting the conventions.
Keanu may not live up to the lofty expectations that a Key & Peele movie bring, but it’s still an enjoyable way to spend 90 minutes. There are plenty of laughs to be had, and they really did find an incredibly cute cat for the eponymous role. Despite the mild disappointment, I’d still rush out to see whatever movie this great comedy duo would follow up with. Peter Atencio is talented visual stylist and his work on the film elevates the material even when it underwhelms. Keanu is a good comedy. Its biggest fault is that it could’ve been great.
With plenty of laughs, Keanu still doesn’t hit the levels of brilliance one would expect from the dynamic comedy duo of Key & Peele.