Comic duo Key & Peele have, by now, earned what’s theirs. In the Comedy Central arena of programming, where many comedians enter and few survive, the pair didn’t have the “immediate next big thing”-ism of an Amy Schumer, nor did they have an at-the-ready army of cult soldiers like Hannibal Buress (whose show, by the way, was terrible). Instead, they were born of comic institutions like Second City and Amsterdam’s BOOM Chicago, clicked together during their four overlapping years on a declining MAD TV and came into the Comedy Central universe having to earn every laugh. Much of their chemistry during their tenure their relied on the team’s innate likeability, so it should be no surprise that their first feature film together, Keanu, trades an awful lot on that very same factor.
It should also come as no surprise, if you’ve ever watched their sketch show Key & Peele, that Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele are nothing if not subversive experts at skewering not only racial and ethnic stereotypes but the interactions between those of differing social and racial classes. It’s on that foundation that Keanu thrives, propelled by the sharp abilities of the pair and a seemingly endless parade of jokes at the expense of these differences.
But let’s start at the beginning, as an adorable kitten escapes a bloodbath as a drug ring is set upon by two mysterious and seemingly indestructible assassins. The kitten makes its way to the front door of the depressed Rell (Peele), whose girlfriend has just left him. He takes the kitten as a sign of hope and names it Keanu, turning all his attention to it until his home is mistakenly ransacked by the purveyors of another drug ring, who take a liking to the kitten and decide to keep it for themselves.
The ensuing course of the film takes place over the course of the next 24 hours, as Rell and his square, corporate trainer family man cousin Clarence (Key) set out to reclaim the kitten only to be mistaken for the aforementioned deadly pair of assassins, a misunderstanding they further by actively pretending to be that pair as they believe this intimidation to be the key to retrieving the stolen kitty. The first half of the film mines its comedy from the spectacle of the two decidedly non-urban men trying to pass themeselves off as such to an intimidating drug dealer (Method Man) and his crew, a spectacle which initially involves simply using the N-word. A lot. Clarence begins to revel in his new alter ego as Rell grows increasingly worrisome about the ruse and the situations the two find themselves begin to rachet up to frightening, real-life levels of violence and threat.
Unsurprisingly, what Key & Peele have constructed in Keanu is essentially a clever long-form version of a basic sketch premise, and what’s amazing is that it actually works. Why it works, however, is a real comic feat: the two seem to deftly switch the role of straight man back and forth — sometimes almost literally from one scene to the next — and turn up the levels of each character alternately so one always remains the grounded conscience of each interaction with the real-world bad guys. Clarence begins to relish his new role as “Shark Tank” and cranks up the showmanship as Rell’s “Tectonic” worries quietly about being discovered, but when Clarence has his moments of soccer dad clarity Rell steps up to keep the ball rolling. Each gets his share of great scenes; Peele’s Rell gets to concoct a terrifying tale of his character’s capabilities during an encounter in the Hollywood Hills while Key’s Clarence conducts a corporate training exercise with a team of seasoned drug dealers. It’s fun to watch the pair juggle these moments back and forth as Keanu speeds toward its inevitable bloody climax.
On a racial and class level, the film walks almost the same tightrope. It’s clear from the onset that the extent Clarence and Rell know of the world into which they’re venturing is what they’ve seen and heard while watching action movies set in blood-soaked, drug-fueled urban jungles, which means nearly everything they do or say seems to channel a stereotype of ethnic action films (case in point: the film’s feline macguffin Keanu himself has three different names — Keanu, New Jack or Iglesias — depending upon the ethnicity of the character in possession of him at any given time). And the culture shocks work both ways; one scene has Clarence indoctrinating a team of young gangsters in the milquetoast oeuvre of George Michael as Rell, only yards away, witnesses true, sobering violence firsthand. The fairly definitive lines between classes are constantly crossed back and forth by the film’s characters, a path the pair of comedians have often seamlessly tread on their television show. Even the film’s sole caucasian, Will Forte, turns in a kooky, cornrowed spin on Gary Oldman’s character Drexl from True Romance.
At the end of the day, however, Keanu needs to be funny, and it is. It’s the type of film that could bring the duo above-board even more as unindoctrinated fans discover how great their chemistry works and, if the right audiences find it, the film could be a huge hit. It’s got great, quotable lines, immensely accessible leads in Key and Peele and a clever, sustained plot that I daresay even blurs into an actual action film in the final reel.
Plus, it’s got a kitty cat. And that kitty cat’s adorable. So all the bases are covered.