Movie Review: “Keanu”

Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Tiffany Haddish, Method Man, Jason Mitchell, Will Forte, Nia Long
Peter Atencio

After gaining popularity with their eponymous Comedy Central sketch show, it was only a matter of time before Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele made the jump to the big screen. The duo’s debut feature “Keanu,” co-written by Peele and frequent collaborator Alex Rubens, may not be as steeped in political and racial humor as some of their funnier skits, but it’s an enjoyable and often hilarious action-comedy that serves as the perfect showcase for Key and Peele’s excellent onscreen chemistry. Apart from perhaps Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, there isn’t a better comedy team in the business, and when combined with a cute-as-a-button tabby kitten that looks adorable even while dodging bullets amid a deadly gangland shootout, it’s no surprise that “Keanu” leaves you with a big smile plastered on your face.

The audience first meets the titular feline during the aforementioned massacre, barely escaping after his drug lord owner is killed by a pair of silent assassins and eventually landing on the doorstep of recently dumped stoner Rell (Peele), whose spirits are quickly lifted by the lovable kitten, which he renames Keanu. A few weeks later, Rell returns home from a night out with his cousin Clarence (Key) to find his place ransacked and Keanu stolen. Following up on a tip from Rell’s drug dealer neighbor (Will Forte), whose apartment was the intended target, the cousins go undercover as a pair of hardened thugs named Tectonic and Shark Tank to retrieve Keanu from the gang responsible for the robbery. Their leader Cheddar (Method Man) has already taken a shine to the kitten, but he agrees to give him up if Rell and Clarence – whom he mistakes for the Allentown Brothers (also played by Key and Peele), the assassins from the opening – tag along with his crew on an upcoming drug deal. Meanwhile, the real Allentown Brothers, who have fallen for the kitten as well (did I mention he’s really cute?), are hot on their trail.

It’s either sheer coincidence or a really great in-joke that the movie plays like a riff on the Keanu Reeves action film, “John Wick,” but although “Keanu” is very much a comedy, the violence is played completely straight. That realness not only helps sell the absurdity of the situation but also balances it out by placing its characters in actual danger. Though it’s a little ridiculous to suggest anyone would be dumb enough to believe Rell and Clarence’s tough-guy act, the setup provides Key and Peele the opportunity to subvert African-American stereotypes of what a black man is supposed to act like. You’d think that the nerds-as-gangsters shtick would get old, but the duo continually finds ways to mine it for comedy, whether comparing battle scars, running team-building exercises or turning their fellow hoodlums on to the music of George Michael.

Key gets the bigger laughs as the buttoned-down family man who discovers that he’s surprisingly adept at the gangster lifestyle (his character is farther removed from that culture than Rell’s pot-smoking slacker, making his transformation even funnier), but the film lives and dies by the chemistry between its two stars. This becomes painfully evident during a key sequence midway through the movie that not only drags on for too long but foolishly separates the duo, nearly derailing the film in the process. Thankfully, Key and Peele have such an amazing rapport, capable of elevating any gag with the perfect delivery or reaction, that “Keanu” eventually recovers. Not every joke lands, and the problematic second act ruins any momentum it’s built up to that point, but “Keanu” is so riotously funny at times that it compensates for that unevenness. Plus, it has a cute cat.