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The comedy team of Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele make their big screen debut in lead roles bringing their trademark topical, racial, and always razor-sharp commentary along with them. Playing characters of extreme polar opposites, much like they often did in their now ended but highly influential show, this feels like an extended sketch from that landmark sketch comedy program. That’s both good and bad in this often funny but sometimes predictable film.
Keanu is the name of an adorable kitten that has an impressive amount of screen time, winning over the hearts of just about every person it comes in contact with. At the start, it is the pet of a drug kingpin who finds himself on the wrong side of two assassins called the “Allentown Boys” (played by Key and Peele). In the extended gunfight that follows, the kitty escapes and runs across town, making its way to a depressed stoner named Rell Williams (Peele) who needs nothing more than a cute pet to perk him up. He takes to the animal with zest and rediscovers hope. This pleases his best friend Clarence (Key), who’s living the suburban dream, though his wife (Nina Long) and daughter just took a trip with a family friend and his daughter, which has him rightly suspicious. Rell and Clarence spend the evening at a Liam Neeson movie and when they return to Rell’s place, the house is ransacked and little Keanu the Kitten is gone. After they learn that another drug lord named Cheddar (Method Man) has taken Keanu, the boys make a plan to try and talk their way into getting the pet back, but naturally, are mistaken for the Allentown Boys and end up in service of Cheddar in exchange for the cat.
What follows is a series of gags that repeat a few times and the regular comedy gangland clichés we’ve come to expect, but none of it diminishes the often laugh-out-loud moments that, if you are a fan of the two, will feel comfortably safe, like a greatest hits collection of their television show. The two have never shied away from some very direct humor, meant to feel a little awkward, and while the show excelled as pushing that envelope, this film is content to keep it in the comfort zone and not use the big screen to really be clever, instead falling back on the their now famous impressions of black men who could pass for white and black men who are hardcore street thugs. It’s funny, but for them, not new.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t some inspired moments. Clarence, a hopelessly middle-income, whitebread black man, dressed like a model for a J.C. Penney fall collection, finds himself in a bind when three thugs are in his mini-van wondering why the ice cold killer they think is named “Sharktank” likes listening to 1980s George Michael. His explanation is good and the effect he has on the gangsters is expected but funny. Meanwhile, Rell is in the home of real-life actress Anna Farris (playing herself), masquerading as “Tectonic” while Cheddar’s number 1 sidekick Hi-C (Tiffany Haddish), a tough, attractive woman that Rell takes a liking to but is shocked to find is easy with her trigger finger. The George Michael bit is a running gag that wears thin quickly and has no real payoff, but another one does fit well, and that’s none other Keanu Reeves himself playing the “voice” of the kitten (heard during a drug-infested overdose). Haddish is quite compelling as the girl who wins Rell’s heart, and her reveal at the finale is hardly surprising but like too often, the story can’t find a way to give her more to do. Same for Long, playing Clarence’s wife, so criminally underused, one wonders why she was even cast.
Directed by Peter Atencio, Keanu is able to sustain itself with some creativity. The high quality that defined the comedy show is notched up a bit here with some great production value and excellent direction. Key and Peele are effortlessly funny and the two have honed and refined their partnership to jaw-dropping levels of timing, both physical and verbal. It’s nearly impossible not to enjoy watching them do just about anything together, but given their often powerful statements on society, cultural, race, and politics that came to represent much of their television work, it’s slightly disappointing to see that edge dulled a bit here to reach a larger audience.
Director: Peter Atencio
Writers: Jordan Peele, Alex Rubens
Stars: Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Tiffany Haddish, Nina Long, Method Man