Thanks to Key and Peele's Powerful Sensibilities, 'Keanu' Is More Than a Meow Mix-up
By taking on expectations, both in comedy and in race, this movie becomes a smart, successful satire.
KeanuDirector: Peter Atencion
Cast: Jordan Peele, Keegan-Michael Key, Method Man, Luis Guzmán, Nia Long, Will Forte
Studio: New Line Cinema
US date: 2016-04-29 (General release)
UK date: 2016-04-29 (General release)
Keanu is cinematic social media. It's your Facebook feed come to life on the big screen. It's a brilliant deconstruction of film tropes, an obvious attempt at satiric pandering, and more than this, proof that the excellent comedy team of Key and Peele have a promising career away from their groundbreaking TV series. Yes, it does rely heavily on reverse stereotyping, the kind that requires African Americans to embrace a "thug" life while dropping the "N" word, and many of the jokes revolve around how cute the title character is juxtaposed against standard action film set-pieces. But it works.
The storyline is actually fairly simple. Rell (Jordan Peele) has just lost the love of his life, and his nerdy cousin Clarence (Keegan-Michael Key) is sympathetic but sensible. Things change for both men when a sweet orphaned kitten comes into their life. The happiness is short-lived, however, when a local gangster named Cheddar (Method Man) robs Rell and makes off with his new pet. In order to retrieve the cat, the boys take on "street" personas -- Techtonic and Shark Tank -- and confront the hood. He says he will let them have the feisty feline if they go on a drug run for him. High concept hijinx ensue.
Keanu is both a hoot and a handful, a dense dissection of race wrapped around a viral clip concept that wouldn't be out of place on someone's YouTube page. It understands the genres it's mocking, pays homage to the movies that make up its many plotpoints, and argues over which Hollywood portrayal of a specific "people" is more "accurate" -- whitewashed or wicked, milquetoasts or muggers. It offers as both comedy and commentary, it's insightful and insanely funny. But there are parts that drag, moments where we lose the momentum. When it picks back up again, the laughs are just as potent and plentiful.
Again, race is a very important part of what Keanu is about. It challenges perceptions without piling on the pontifications. For those familiar with the Key & Peele TV series, it's just an extension of the caricature challenging comedy the duo have made their reputation on. Yes, the movie often feels like an extended sketch, but it's a 100-minute short that works. The subplots are organic, the introduction of characters on all sides of the narrative spectrum more than just stunts or excuses for punchlines. About the only flaw is the direction by long time collaborator Peter Atencio. He still has a way to go to develop his small screen style for the bigs.
That doesn't mean he doesn't show promise. Not only is Keanu a comedy, but it's a terrific take on the whole over the top action movie concept. Each set piece here plays like an elephantine offspring of Michael Bay, with bombast and battle detail flying in "symbolic" slow motion. As guns blaze, bullets fly, and a little kitten scurries within it all, we are amazed at how accurate the takedown is. Imagine a scene in one of Bay's Transformers films with a puppy plowing through it, or any time John Woo added birds to his ammunition art and you've got the idea of what Keanu wants to achieve.
Of course, the bigger question becomes whether or not a mainstream audience will embrace Key and Peele's sensibilities. In small doses, on a basic cable channel, the boundaries they push are appreciable. You can see where they are going and enjoy how they get there. Some may come into this movie feeling like they are about to see a wacky caper where two "ordinary" guys end up in extraordinary circumstances (of their own making, mind you) and feel a bit deflated when that's just part of the experience. Yes, Keanu very clever. It's the thinking part that may give some members of the potential audience pause. That, and a Hard R rating.
All in all, Keanu is a brave move for Key and Peele. They don't attempt to make themselves as performers and players anything different than what they are. They're tweaking tradition while calling back to the numerous times the industry downgraded the African American to "criminal" or "servant". They don't push that agenda very hard, however. They recognize that it's become part of a flawed filmmaking fabric, and that viewers seem nonplused by the institutional dismissal. Keanu knowingly confronts these issues, and those who see this film will be doubly rewarded by the experience.
In the end, Keanu will be rated on how well it delivers its cat-fueled funny business. It will win or lose based on humor. All the elements are here for a good time, and for the most part, Key, Peele, and Atencio deliver. Are there other ideas percolating beneath the surface, struggling for recognition beyond the ballyhoo and burlesque? Absolutely. That Keanu handles them subtlety may be its most masterful move. By using the web's favorite salve -- a meowing bundle of fur -- to make their point, Key and Peele prove just how savvy they really are.