Directed by: Peter Atencio.
Written by: Jordan Peele & Alex Rubens.
Starring: Jordan Peele (Rell Williams / Oil Dresden), Keegan-Michael Key (Clarence Goobril / Smoke Dresden), Tiffany Haddish (Hi-C), Method Man (Cheddar), Darrell Britt-Gibson (Trunk), Jason Mitchell (Bud), Jamar Malachi Neighbors (Stitches), Luis Guzmán (Bacon), Will Forte (Hulka), Nia Long (Hannah), Rob Huebel (Spencer).
Key & Peele was the best sketch comedy on TV during it brilliant five year run. That series boldly tackled very serious issues of race, right alongside some sketches that were just plain goofy fun. During its run, Key & Peele was daring – but it was also always hilarious, and gave a variety of roles and characters to its stars/creators – who also openly talked about what it was like to be a black actor in Hollywood – always have to audition for the role of “black friend”. While it was a shame that Key & Peele ended – it was probably for the best for them to get out of the show before it grew stale (something the latest season of the other great sketch comedy show, Inside Amy Schumer, is struggling with on this most recent season). But these two performers have such chemistry together, you knew they wouldn’t stay away from each other for long – which brings us to Keanu, the action/comedy movie starring the pair (and co-written by Peele). The movie is consistently funny for its 98 minute runtime – even if it never reaches the heights of their show. Strangely, even with feature length to play with, it feels like a lot of the sketches on Key & Peele were deeper and more insightful than the entirety of the film. None of this is to suggest that Keanu isn’t hilarious – or a waste of the talents of the two leading men. Yet, a little like Trainwreck written and starring Amy Schumer last year, it feels like the film plays everything a little too safe – and doesn’t upend the Hollywood formulas as much as you may think given their show.
The movie takes place in L.A. – and opens with a bloody shootout when a pair of Allentown assassins walk into a church, filled with Diaz gang, cutting drugs, and proceed to slaughter them all in an exaggerated, slow-motion gun battle that even John Woo would think was over-the-top (purposefully so). During the massacre, the most adorable kitten in the world takes off – eventually finding his way to the home of Rell (Peele) – a pot smoking, slacker depressed because his girlfriend has just broken up with him. The adorable cat brings him out of that depression – much to the relief of his cousin, Clarence (Key). Through a series of plot twists though the kitten, named Keanu by Rell, ends up in the hands of a drug dealer named Cheddar (Method Man) – and Rell and Clarence end up spending time with his crew over the weekend – adopting the persona of the Allentown assassins from the beginning.
The movie is at its best as Rell and Clarence try hard to fit in with the gang of drug dealers – adopting stereotypical drug dealer personas and vocal inflections they’ve learned from movies like New Jack City and others – which is miles away from who they really are (early in the film, they compare notes about growing up in New York and Detroit – arguing over who got beat up by bigger guys). Clarence is far more reluctant to get into his gang persona – dubbed Shark Tank – but it only takes him a minute or two before he seems incredibly comfortable in it – even going so far as to expound on the virtues of George Michael to the gang, or employ his corporate team building strategies on them (I loved the moment, late in the moment, where he marvels that they are working together).
It must be said that Keanu isn’t a particularly well paced or structured movie – there are gags that are funny, and then go on longer than they need to (like what starts out as a hilarious cameo by a comedic actress I want to see more of on the big screen again – but which flags as it winds down). Will Forte’s drug dealer is a little bit of a missed opportunity as well – as they never really push his character far enough, or seemingly have anything to say about cultural appropriation. And Nia Long is wasted as Key’s wife.
Yet, flaws aside, Keanu is consistently funny – not quite from beginning to end, but close enough. The pair have always been movie buffs (one of my favorite Key & Peele sketches has the pair of them shooting things in a movie theater, playing on quite a few stereotypes at once) – and while Keanu never quite reaches Hot Fuzz levels of parody of 1990s action movies, it does come really quite close. More importantly, Keanu proves that it pair of stars can escape from the shadow of the sketch comedy, and become real movie stars. I’m not sure they quite outshine the kitten in Keanu – but they come close. I do hope that next time out, they push everything farther – but until then, Keanu will do just fine.