Keanu (2016) / Comedy-Action
MPAA Rated: R for violence, language throughout, drug use and sexuality/nudity
Running Time: 98 min.
Cast: Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Method Man, Tiffany Haddish, Will Forte, Nia Long, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Jason Mitchell, Jamar Malachi Neighbors, Luis Guzman, Rob Huebel, Anna Faris
Director: Peter Atencio
Screenplay: Jordan Peele, Alex Rubens
Review published April 29, 2016
Sketch comedy stars Key (Hotel Transylvania 2) & Peele (Wanderlust) aim to take their humor to the big screen with Keanu, an action-comedy that sees the racial stereotype-breaking comedians have to embrace those stereotypes in order to infiltrate a crew of vicious gangsters to get their beloved kitten back. Key stars as Clarence, a straight-laced suburbanite who is lured by his recently broken-up slacker cousin Rell, played by Peele, to finally cut loose with his wife (Long, The Best Man Holiday) away for the weekend. Little do they know that this 'cutting a little loose' might involve strippers, drugs and murder, as Rell's adorable kitty, which has given him his long-lost mojo back, has been taken in a mistaken-identity burglary by Cheddar (Method Man, Staten Island Summer), the leader of the gang called the Blips (those who left the Bloods or Crips), who will only give Keanu back if the men, who are posing Tectonic and Shark Tank, out-of-towner hitmen called the Allentown gang (mute, trenchcoated thugs also played by Key and Peele), who are also on the lookout for the loveable kitten that got away from them during a gunfight at the film's intro.
Much of the humor stems from the two nerdy men clearly in over their heads trying to act street. Clarence ends up mentoring a squad of new recruits in the ways to be a top-flight gangster, while Rell gets closer to female gang member Hi-C (Haddish, School Dance) during his mission to gain Cheddar's respect by collecting some drug money from comedic actress Anna Faris (Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2). The men pose and cop attitude as they've seen from the movies they enjoy (to the point where this film should have been called New Jack Kitty), and even use the N-word, though they are clearly uncomfortable doing it. It won't surprise their fans to learn that Key and Peele have great chemistry together, and that much of the best moments of the film come with their effortless camaraderie and rhythmic banter they explore as they try to keep each other safe while traversing the criminal underworld. Fine comedic supporting turns from Method Man and Haddish also give some added nuance to one-note characterizations.
As with most Key and Peele premises, it's generally funny, but they find themselves having to repeat jokes too often, and stretch out the handful of go-to gags beyond their freshness date in order to fill up a full length feature film. Gags involving Clarence's love of George Michael is one of those go-to jokes, of which the main premise seems to be that it's corny for a black man to enjoy the pop sensibilities in the music of George Michael (though, it should be noted, that George Michael's "Faith" LP spent 61 weeks on the top Black Albums chart (currently called the R&B/Hip-Hop chart) on Billboard, peaking at #1). The comedy duo, as they did with some of their recurring skits from "MADtv" and their TV show "Key & Peele", continue their premise and try to push the envelope even further into the realm of the absurd, which might work in short chunks, but as a film, it gives the impression that they've run out of creative fuel and are now just trying to coast to the finish line with residual fumes.
Keanu is directed by Peter Atencio (The Rig), who directed them for the vast majority of the run of "Key & Peele" on Comedy Central, and is written by Peele and "Key & Peele" writer/co-producer Alex Rubens (interestingly, Key does not get a writing credit). He is clearly in tune with the men and their style, so fans of their "brand" will likely feel right at home in this extended sketch comedy premise. However, unlike the TV show, the man can't switch to a new topic once they run out of finding humor in the current one, which keeps Keanu just short of the kind of runaway comedy hit they flirt with being throughout the first half. The second half of the film repeats jokes you enjoyed better the first time around, and throws in a lot more murderous-thug violence that is more disturbing than funny. The action isn't poorly delivered, but it's much less amusing to see the men diving headfirst into murderous thug life than in actively trying to avoid it.
While it delivers on just enough funny moments to garner a recommendation, it plays with racial stereotypes, but, given they have about 80 minutes more to explore their sketch comedy premise, could have delved deeper into confronting them head-on instead of just remaining superficially interested. It's a rough but respectable first shot big screen success, but it does make you hope that Key & Peele will choose to root their next effort into more scathing satire instead of escalating the levels of absurdity.
©2016 Vince Leo