The first film collaboration with Jordan Peele and Keegan Michael-Key, hot off their acclaimed Key & Peele sketch comedy series, is about a kitten. Specifically, a ridiculously adorable stray that enters the life of Rell (Peele) at his lowest point and immediately rejuvenates his life. Naturally, Rell names the kitten “Keanu.” Rell’s best friend, Clarence (Key), is overjoyed to see his stoner buddy finally asserting himself and finding joy and motivation. But when Keanu suddenly disappears, Rell and Clarence go on a dark quest to find him. They eventually discover that Keanu’s new owner has adorned the kitten in a do-rag and gold chains.
Directed by Peter Atencio, it begins so brilliantly, with a nutty, skillfully directed action sequence, it seemed like “Keanu” really would live up to being from “the visionary minds of Key & Peele.” Unfortunately, the film becomes overly committed to its gangsta drama.
The brilliance of Key and Peele’s TV series is that they would take an outrageous concept and push the joke as far as it could possibly go. I’m thinking of their deranged and hilarious “Little Homie” sketch. Keanu begins in high gear, mellows out for too long and only at the very end does the movie inch towards total comic lunacy. You keep waiting for them to leap past the gangbanger clichés and enough-already jokes about George Michael and take everything an absurd step further. Instead, the screenplay sticks to its story of rival gang members and can only do so much with it.
At best, it comes closer to being a good Fakerz N The Hood comedy than the likes of Get Hard, Bringing Down the House and Malibu’s Most Wanted. Initially, it seems like the film has something to say about identifying yourself in African-American culture and adopting a rapper lifestyle as a means of expressing repressed anger. It also wants to tap into the universal fact that just about everyone on the planet can’t resist the charms of an adorable kitten. The subtext and the promise of a great movie go slack by the second hour, when things get both overly predictable and too complicated. Having Luis Guzman show up late as a rival criminal should feel like a comic shot in the arm, not additional baggage.
The movie needed more Keanu, whose presence is such a funny contrast to all the violence and dark humor. Near the end, there’s a money shot of Keanu defending his master and leaping through the air. It’s one of the most priceless in the film. So is the way the movie eventually addresses the kitten’s famous namesake. Yet, the screenplay paints itself into a corner and doesn’t go as over the top as it should. The introduction of the Allentown Brothers, for example, is so good that the movie should have stuck with them.
Key and Peele, as always, have great chemistry and make a potent comic duo. They’re so good and likable, they will likely overcome this wobbly first feature.
Oddly, right after I saw Keanu, I visited a friend who was watching the final season of their TV series. We watched an “Undercover Boss” sketch that had us howling for four minutes. In comparison, the hilarity in Keanu isn’t consistent or sustained for its 100-minute running time.
For better or worse, the best thing this movie has is a kitten in a do-rag. That’s acceptable, especially in a movie year that gave us Fifty Shades of Black. Yet, a single four-minute sketch is still better at showcasing how funny Key and Peele can be over a motion picture. I hope their next movie is really something else. My two cents: write a stronger movie next time, but bring back the kitten.