With the mind-boggling cancellation of the beloved Comedy Central sketch show, Key and Peele, fans of comedy team Keegan Michael-Key and Jordan Peele were left wondering where the duo would find themselves next. These same fans were relieved, therefore, upon announcement of the duo’s first feature film, Keanu (2016).
An unusual name for an unusual film, Keanu follows up on expectations by incorporating the creativity, humor, and voice of Key and Peele with a fresh take on the action-comedy. While Keanu isn’t especially uproarious or game changing, it is an enjoyable and well-crafted comedy with enough unique touches to signal a promising future for Key and Peele in film.
The movie opens with the origins of the kitten itself, which is shown to belong to a San Francisco drug dealer. As the dealer oversees a drug operation inside a condemned church, two hulking hitmen with face-concealing dreadlocks (played, with heavy makeup, by Key and Peele themselves) walk into the room. The two hitmen, deemed the Allentown Boys, systematically murder everyone in the Church, shooting and backflipping their way across the room amidst epic choral music. In the midst of the chaos, the drug lord’s kitten escapes, trekking its way across San Francisco.
Meanwhile, across town, a distraught photographer named Rell (played by Peele) languishes in his apartment, surrounded by weed and bongs in the aftermath of a breakup. His cousin, Clarence (played by Key), calls him on the phone from his car to check in on him, offering to come over and visit.
“I don’t want you to see me like this,” says Rell. “I look like Apollo Creed.”
“Wait, in which movie?” Clarence asks, confused.
“The one where he died.”
Just after hanging up, however, Rell hears a noise outside. He opens the door to find the kitten from the drug ring sitting on his doorstep. Even before Clarence shows up, Rell has become enamored with the kitten, seemingly cured of his pain. Over the next few weeks Rell returns to his photography work, using Keanu as his new subject, even creating his calendar featuring kitten-themed recreations of classic movies.
Clarence goes to meet up with Rell for the weekend, but after a night out at the movies, the two return to find Rell’s apartment trashed and Keanu kidnapped, prompting them to track down the people who stole him.
Pretty much from the get go, Keanu operates as a parody of the Keanu Reeves vehicle John Wick (2015), in which the title character, a former mafia hit man, returns to his old ways when his dog is killed. Keanu works to highlight the hilarity of the concept that didn’t seem to strike the makers of John Wick at the time, and even seems stylized and crafted in many places to directly mirror the movie. These homages including several lines (“Everything has a price”), visuals (Peele holding up the kitten and saying “Hey”) and sets (a strip club reflecting the flashy locales of Wick, and an encounter in a swanky marble apartment with Anna Faris, in which Faris brandishes a samurai sword).
Even the transformation of the two protagonists from mild-mannered citizens to faux violent thugs reflects the transformation of John Wick. One humorous scene, in which Rell interrogates his drug dealer (Will Forte) by smashing the dealer’s records on the floor especially evokes this tone. The film’s screenwriters, Alex Rubens and Peele himself, seem to have a certain admiration for the film, whether for its action or its inherent absurdity.
The movie’s main comedic angle lies in Rell and Clarence putting on the guise of the Allentown Boys when they’re mistaken for the infamous hitmen by Cheddar (played by Method Man, in an obvious homage to his character “Cheese” from The Wire), the local drug dealer who’s taken Keanu, unaware it belongs to Rell. This naturally involves the duo attempting to pass themselves off as hardened criminals when they’re both assuredly anything but (“you sound like Richard Pryor doing an impression of a white guy” Rell tells Clarence, while Clarence reminds Rell of how much he sounds like John Ritter). It’s an old comedy trope, but one that Key and Peele refreshingly pull off with their own unique personalities and style, especially given Key’s now-famous “raving voice” seen in the duo’s “Obama’s Anger Translator” skits.
A conversation around Keanu will unavoidably involve comparisons with Key and Peele, and the influence of the latter shows. Besides direct homages to the show (i.e., walking out of a fake Liam Neeson movie shouting “Liam Neesons!”), several scenes feel staged like your average Key and Peele skit, for better or worse. A scene in which Clarence uses his work experience as a corporate team manager to educate Cheddar’s gang in the ways of criminal conduct could have been a skit all on its own.
“Alright, what’s gonna happen now,” Clarence announces to the gang, still putting on his gangsta facade, “we’re gonna go in a circle, and everybody’s gonna say they name and two things about yo’self.”
The comedy falls in line with the Key and Peele tradition of parodying both black and white culture, which is most evident in an extended joke about the sheltered Clarence’s love of George Michael, and his attempts to convince Cheddar’s gang that Michael is black. By the end of one scene, Clarence has a van full of Cheddar’s men are all singing along to “Father Figure”. The joke trails on over the course of the scene to the point of feeling redundant, especially given its prominence in the trailers, but is nonetheless priceless in its first few minutes.
With its John Wick and Key and Peele influence in mind, Keanu puts an admirable amount of effort and atmosphere into its imitation and parody, including somehow managing to make Britney Spears’ cover of “Tom’s Diner” intimidating background music. The film’s visuals are frequently impressive, including a hilarious hallucination scene in which Key is digitally inserted into George Michael’s “Faith” music video, sporting tight, bright-blue jeans as he attempts to mimic Michael’s dancing. The film even follows up on its unspoken promise to feature Keanu Reeves by providing a very amusing cameo as part of this hallucination.
The action scenes sport impressive choreography and slow-motion camera work, but never abandon the film’s humor as Clarence and Rell miraculously develop talents for gunplay and acrobatics as they attempt to protect Keanu, whose cuteness alone seems to protect him from any and all of the bullets flying about.
As expected, part of the film’s humor stems from the unifying power of the titular kitten among the movie’s cast of players. The film’s overarching message seems to be that no matter who you are, good or bad, innocent bystander or merciless gangster, everybody loves kittens. To see the film’s villains, such as Cheddar or even the Allentown Boys, petting and playing with Keanu while committing or planning horrible deeds puts an amusing spin on the classic cinema villain trope of petting a cat. Maybe, the film would argue, the world would be a better place if there were just enough kittens running around to calm everyone the hell down.
Keanu is not a revolutionary comedy, but it’s a good one, and a promising transition for the comedic talent of Key and Peele as they step into the realm of cinema. Key and Peele’s familiar talents for comedy and their characteristic style and presentation are as evident here as in their famous skits, and they are for the most part successful in a jump to film which should assure fans of the duo’s future in comedy.