Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key are gifted comic actors and sketch writers. Their defunct Comedy Central show Key & Peele was unique for two reasons: they would end a sketch abruptly when its premise wore thin, and they would copy the cinematography of whatever pop culture artifact they wanted to skewer. Their spoof of eighties exercise videos looked the part, for example, and some sketches ended with their characters exploding. Keanu is the first feature-length film from this duo, and it presents a challenging transition. While they have perfect sketch-writing instincts, their command of tone and comedy falters when they need to focus more on plot, character, and pacing. Parts of Keanu are thin and meandering, and yet there is enough cuteness/creativity so the laughs never quite stop.
The premise taps into something we all internalize from Internet culture: everyone loves a cute kitten. Director Peter Atencio, a veteran of Key & Peele, starts with a kitten escaping a gangland shootout, and his awkward, tiny leaps are ironic punchline against the violence behind him. The kitten finds its way to the home of Rell (Peele), a hopeless stoner who realizes the cat will help him get over his girlfriend. He bonds with kitten instantly, naming it Keanu, and his cousin Clarence (Key) is also smitten. Keanu goes missing after Rell’s place was broken into, so he immediately suspects that the associates of his drug-dealing neighbor (Will Forte) are to blame. Rell and Clarence track down the gangster Cheddar (Method Man), and insert themselves into his world so they can steal Keanu back. The kitten is a classic MacGuffin, except this one also meows.
The primary source of comedy is how Rell and Clarence adopt harder-sounding voices in order to fit in with Cheddar and his associates. Key and Peele take their time with characters, developing their dorkiness, so their new voices are more of a surprise. It is a bigger stretch for Clarence, who does not do drugs and rocks out to George Michael in his minivan. This shift to a thuggish persona is no stretch for the two leads: the very first Key & Peele sketch is about this exact topic. What helps elevate Keanu above a mere sketch – for a while, anyway – is how Key and Peele tie their ruse to character. Clarence runs away with his new identity, while the life of a gangster horrifies Rell. There is a middle section where Key and Peele are no longer together, and it’s the highlight of Keanu. Key gets more laughs with dialogue in a minivan than he gets in the bigger, more elaborate set pieces.
This movie is billed as an action/comedy, except the latter is more successful than the former. The action is perfunctory and lifeless, as if Atencio does not know how to frame a shoot-out or car chase. Atencio’s work as a sketch director may actually do him a disservice here; he cannot rely on the impression of an action scene, and must shoot the real thing. Keanu’s climax looks like a trailer for another, stronger movie, and the plot never really raises the stakes or peril. Keanu’s squeaks ensure us that he’s always safe, and the slow-motion is not exaggerated enough to be silly, or eye-popping enough to look badass.
In fact, Keanu would be better film if Key, Peele, and Atencio focused more on dialogue than action. It’s funnier to watch these guys talk their way out of a situation than shoot their way out. Still, there are some visual flourishes that stick the landing, like a drug-induced hallucination that features the voice of Keanu Reeves. Key and Peele love pop culture, so while Keanu allows them to stake a bigger part of it, their ambition gets the better of them. They fall into the classic sketch-to-film trap: their movie could be about fifteen minutes tighter, with characters defined more sharply.
There is a sub-plot involving in Keanu where Rell recreates his favorite action films with the kitten in the key roles. There is a photograph of Keanu jumping out of a plane, for example, that apes a big scene from Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break. The devotion to this period in action cinema is nothing new, as Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright already explored it with Hot Fuzz, but here it creates a bit of dark irony. Rell and Clarence do not relish the opportunity to be heroes; they’re reluctant cowards throughout the film, and only rise to the occasion because the cat is so damn cute, or a gun was literally forced into their hand. This deepens the premise of that first Key & Peele sketch, and its racial implications are sometimes thoughtful. But Key and Peele are primarily making a case for themselves as movie stars, instead of making their big debut about something more specific. Keanu does not quite have the chops to go for broke, yet that’s what the guys tried, anyway, and I guess you can’t really fault them for falling a little short.