Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele get a well deserved shot at the big screen in Keanu, a movie with enough savvy to know that a cute kitten can get you pretty far in this cold, cynical, scary world.
It also knows what will be catnip to a certain audience, which is why Keanu opens with its strongest set piece: a ‘90s-style John Woo shootout in a church converted into a drug den. There, we gasp as our titular feline bounds in slow motion, up and over stacks of cash and cocaine, narrowly escaping danger as bullets fly and bodies stack up.
Where to go from that crowd-pleasing open is another matter. Key and Peele star as Clarence and Rell, cousins and mismatched besties living perfectly safe and boring lives in the parts of Los Angeles where Key and Peele probably live in real life. The buttoned-up Clarence has a wife and daughter he adores but is a people pleaser who’s lost all sense of himself. Rell is a bong-ripping bachelor-slacker whose apartment is papered in movie posters.
We don’t really know what they do for a living, but we know they bro out by catching flicks at the Arclight. In L.A., that’s telling enough.
Both of their lives are upended when Rell, depressed over a recent breakup, finds the world’s most adorable kitten on his doorstep. He names him Keanu. Although Rell doesn’t know it, Keanu has left behind some nefarious former owners to trek across the city to “choose” him. Like any new pet parent, Rell falls instantly in love. The SPCA would be fools if they don’t launch Keanu-themed promotions to send kitty-bro adoptions skyrocketing.
Clarence and Rell’s more immediate problems begin when Keanu is catnapped by gangbangers. To get him back, they step out of their comfort zones and head to the hood, where through a series of misunderstandings they’re mistaken for a ruthless pair of street assassins and embedded into a crew of drug-dealing gangsters led by Method Man as a menacing figure named Cheddar.
This is where Keanu makes its most interesting social commentary, even if it doesn’t clearly crystallize what it really wants to say. In order to blend in among the ‘bangers, Clarence and Rell are forced to reverse code-switch their way into a trap life they know nothing about. “You sound like Richard Pryor doing an impression of a white guy,” Rell admonishes as he and Clarence attempt to stroll undercover into the lair of the 17th St. “Blips,” a supergang comprised of Bloods and Crips.
They argue over what a “real” black voice sounds like, how culturally inappropriate it is to use the N-word given its loaded historical usage. But as soon as he’s pressed, Clarence lets the N-word fly and leans hard into his faux O.G. cover. He befriends a trio of Cheddar’s young thugs, leading into a solid payoff for a recurring joke about Clarence’s obsession with the oeuvre of George Michael.
Rell, meanwhile, finds himself drawn to the gang’s comely token female, Cheddar’s streetwise right-hand woman. Their worlds are night and day—a real eye-opener for Rell in one of the film’s other great sequences in the Hollywood Hills that features a wonderfully unhinged celebrity cameo. And yet, Key and Peele illustrated the self-editing nature of contemporary black identity far more concisely—and in under a minute—on their show.
Keanu is scripted by Peele and Alex Rubins, who wrote for Key & Peele, and it’s helmed by Peter Atencio, who directed on it. Some will worry, with good reason, that Keanu will play like a comedy sketch stretched thin. After starting off with well-earned LOLs, the SXSW cut lost considerable steam and focus as soon as Keanu got catnapped, charting a conventional path through tediously long scenes.
The high points of Keanu, much like the best moments of Key & Peele, materialize out of nowhere to toy with audience expectations then keep running juuuuust past the punchline, propelled along by the crackling chemistry the duo have been perfecting since their MadTV days. If only there was more biting Key & Peele randomness to be had. Gangsters can haz kitty? only gets you so far.