Television comedy stars Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele make their film debut with an unbearably adorable co-star in the new action comedy Keanu, which isn’t without its intermittent charms but ultimately feels like a series of five-minute comedy sketches separated by noticeable gaps of filler. Key and Peele play cousins Clarence and Rell, the latter of whom finds solace post-breakup in a newly discovered kitten who he names Keanu (a possible allusion to the similarly-plotted Keanu Reeves movie John Wick). After Rell’s apartment is burglarized and Keanu is nowhere in sight, the two team up to infiltrate the feared 17th Street Blips gang when they learn that the group’s leader Cheddar (Method Man) may have kidnapped their tiny feline companion.
Right from the beginning, the film’s most obvious positive attribute is the flawless comedic chemistry on display between the two lead actors. After 5 consistently funny seasons of their acclaimed TV show, it’s comforting to find that none of the duo’s wit or timing has been lost in translation when making the leap to feature films. While the two aren’t aided much on the comedy side of things —Will Forte is horribly mis-cast as a clueless drug dealer and a second act cameo similarly falls flat— I was surprised how grounded and, dare I say, compelling the acting was from most of the gang member characters.
As is to be expected, most of the film’s laughs come from the fish-out-of-water premise that arises when these two laid-back guys hastily adapt their own “gangster” personas in order to earn the trust and respect of the 17th Street Blips. Key and Peele, along with director and TV series collaborator Peter Atencio, attack this central joke from just about every conceivable angle and approach subjects of race and class with the same level of intelligence displayed in the best sketches from their show. All of these elements are wrapped up perfectly in the movie’s most successful scene: an impromptu George Michael listening session initiated by Clarence, who gives a hilarious retelling of the rise and fall of the pop group Wham! to a car full of pensive young gang members.
Even though this film clearly isn’t aiming for a plausible or remotely realistic storyline, I do wish there was much more creativity with the storytelling and the style behind it. While the setup is simple, the steps that the story takes after it begin to get ludicrous in a hurry but not in a way that’s especially entertaining. Satirizing big action scenes isn’t necessarily a flawed concept (Hot Fuzz did this to tremendous effect) but when you do so without any sort of attitude or new perspective towards the source material that you’re spoofing, it just comes off as lazy and anonymous filmmaking. There’s no doubt that Key and Peele have a great comedy movie still in their future and my best hope for Keanu is that it does well enough at the box office to make that future possible.