While watching through Keanu, I couldn’t help but think of those Klondike Bar commercials where people go through increasingly absurd and ridiculous scenarios just to sate their hunger. What would you do for a cat named Keanu? Comedy duo, Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key, have embraced the ridiculous and the absurd in their careers to great success, most notably in their well-received sketch show Key and Peele, but their first feature film raises the question of whether they can sustain their brand of improvisational comedy over an hour and half.
For the most part, the answer seems to be yes. Keanu may not have the sharpest or wittiest script, but Key and Peele carry the movie through their performance and comedic timing, and most importantly, the script has a surprising amount of heart. Playing largely like an extended sketch, the film showcases both actors’ ability to switch on the fly into different personas. When his cat, Keanu, is stolen, a suburbanite slacker, Rell (Peele), and his over-wound cousin, Clarence (Key), infiltrate an inner city gang by impersonating two infamous murderers, The Allentown Brothers. Neither is prepared for the task at hand, since most of their knowledge of the streets coming from binging watching episodes of The Wire. Yet, no matter how crazy the situation, the relationship between the two is believable; there’s an earned compatibility from years of the two actors working together that comes with every dialogue. They argue about who had it rougher in high school and who could survive longer on the streets. They joke and bicker like two long time friends would.
Much of the comedy comes from the two finding themselves in over their heads and trying to maintain their covers. Key and Peele give a manic performance, fear bubbling in their eyes as they drop into a series of insults to prove their street cred. Their voices drop from a high pitch, almost prissy tone to a caricature boom drawing the bewildered eyes of the surrounding gang members, and at times when they’re alone, their normal voices creep back in as they try to stop each other from going too far into their personality. The two haplessly bumble from scene to scene as they try to maintain their cover as hardened criminals such as finding themselves accompanying the gang on a drug deal, accomplices to murder, and convincing gang members that George Michaels is hardcore. While the humor can be random at times, Key and Peele are consistently funny in their juggling act.
Key and Peel are well prepared for the roles. They’ve had years of practice from their early days on MadTV to their recently wrapped up Key and Peel. Clarence and Rell seem to be a composite of two acting styles they’ve built a name on—transiting from privileged, soft, and level headed upper class to a mad dog, almost insane, ghetto showman that draws the eye as much as respect. The marriage of the two is the basis of the film, and as much as it draws its premise from Keanu Reeves’s action thriller John Wick, the film plays much more like a season finale of Key and Peele than a deconstruction or spoof of the genre.
That works as much to its detriment as its strength. It’s difficult to take the film for its own merit as Clarence and Rell never feel like their own beasts. You’re always aware of who’s playing them, much in the same way of Tom Cruise’s characters always being Tom Cruise. As much as the film tries to be edgy (it has the obligatory strip club it seems every R-rated movie has to include), it lacks the teeth it needs to examine the genre. Compared to something like Hot Fuzz, the action pieces, especially in the end, never feel gritty or witty enough, and it seems that both characters are on the peripheral rather than taking center-stage in the action. Likewise, it loses steam midway through and never seems to regain its sense of momentum. The titular cat is appropriately cute and adorable enough to make Clarence and Rell’s quest believable. The film uses that cuteness to its advantage, as it hilariously focuses on the cat in slow-motion through several gunfights. It’s somewhat of a shame that the cat is sidelined for much of the film after it’s introduced.
While it’s funny enough to recommend, Keanu never rises as anything but a good comedy, as it relies mostly on the audience’s good will towards its two star actors. At times, it’s hard not to feel slightly disappointed with what could have been. The premise has an almost limitless potential, and with both Key and Peele as stars, there’s a truly great comedy in here somewhere. But, if Keanu proves one thing, it’s that the two comedians can carry a feature length film and work best when they’re playing off each other. I’m optimistic for what they produce in the future.