Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele collectively pushed forward sketch comedy with their hit TV show Key and Peele that ended in 2015 after five strong seasons. They tackled subjects as varied as race, substitute teachers and endless pop culture ephemera (Mr. T PSA anyone?) in a format that seemed rooted in the pair’s deep love of cinema and their ability to construct pitch-perfect parodies of those movies they adored. That knowledge of film language meant that hopes were high for their debut movie. With two of the funniest guys in charge (along with their TV director Peter Atencio handling the same duties on the movie), why then does Keanu feel like such a drag?
The setup is jokey enough to seem either lazy or brilliant. Directly cribbed from the stellar action flick John Wick (starring the dude himself, Keanu Reeves), Keanu the movie is about mild-mannered and recently dumped stoner Rell (Jordan Peele) and how an obnoxiously cute kitten (also named Keanu) helps lifts his spirits before tragically going missing after a break-in. Desperate to regain the one thing that was mending his broken heart, Rell and his well-meaning cousin – family man Clarence (Keegan-Michael Key) – scour L.A. in search of the titular feline.
As Rell and Clarence journey deeper into the inner city’s strip clubs and drug dens, the suburban guys have to adopt hard personas, taking on the monikers “Tectonic” and “Shark Tank” as they brandish guns and get high against their better judgment. The dual personas allow Key and Peele to essentially be both straight men and broader characters, depending on the needs of each scene. It’s a bit of a one-joke premise as the milquetoast guys have to pretend to be seasoned gangsters, trading their white wine spritzers for malt liquor as they ingratiate themselves into the clique of gang leader Cheddar (Method Man) who now holds Keanu in his clutches.
It’s commendable that Key and Peele have birthed a new story here instead of relying on their deep roster of unique characters (like Key’s apoplectic substitute teacher, who will be getting a movie of his own anyway). It allows for both a clean slate and an opportunity to create more great personalities. And while the pair’s winning chemistry is on display all throughout the movie, the jokes are often few and far between.
One problem may be an overly simplistic story that travels from point A to B without many surprises. There’s a subplot about a pair of deadly assassins known as the “Allentown Boys” (also played by Key and Peele) that feels like an action movie parody stripped of jokes. When the accommodating Clarence allows his wife (Nia Long) to go away for the weekend with a sleazy neighbourhood dad played by Rob Huebel, it’s clear that Clarence will rise to the occasion at some point and man up, it just becomes a matter of when.
Other characters populating the fringes do add to the movie’s sense of fun, like Cheddar’s crew members Hi-C (Tiffany Haddish) and Bud (Jason Mitchell). Clarence, a corporate team builder, teaches them to communicate better and even to appreciate the subtle nuances of 80’s George Michael music in one of the film’s better gags. Will Forte pops up as Rell’s neighbour Hulka, a dreadlocked pot dealer who, like many characters in Keanu, holds more promise than is realized on screen.
There’s a few cameos to liven things up and a deeply weird dream sequence that displays some of the abstract comedy that made Key and Peele famous. That strangeness is welcome and all too brief, as the movie seems eager to get back to its mundane plotting. Making things worse is a brief tease of their famous valets sketch when Rell and Clarence go to the movies and rave about Liam Neesons’ latest shoot em up.
Those flashes of brilliance make the joke-free stretches harder to endure, especially as it’s clear that Key and Peele are two of the sharpest comedy talents working today. As it is, Keanu is a serviceable comedy that feels like a lesser Broken Lizard effort – a likeable movie that coasts along on the charms of its cast, never challenging its audience or delivering the big laughs that you know they’re capable of. The kitten’s adorable though.
Runtime: 100 minutes
Directed by: Peter Atencio