What do you get when you combine the black culture-skewering comedy of Key & Peele, the endless appeal of George Michael, and the cutest Internet cat videos ever? You get “Keanu”, a dead-on hilarious riff of action flick tropes often favored by the film’s namesake. Through their sadly-concluded series, Key & Peele took sketch comedy to all new heights on a weekly basis for a number of seasons. All they’ve done is take what worked there and bring it to the big screen, delivering what may be the funniest movie of the year.
“You sound like Richard Pryor doing an impression of a white man”, says lazy stoner Rell (Jordan Peele) to his uptight cousin Clarence (Keegan-Michael Key) in the popular comedy duo’s big screen feature, “Keanu”. It’s an undeniable fact; Key often does sound like an impression of a white man; but so does Peele, whose character is accused of sounding like John Ritter. That has been part of the team’s act for years as they mock African-American stereotypes, especially the ones dealing with gang culture and the supposed virility within it. Referencing everything from “New Jack City” to “Heat” to pretty much every John Woo movie ever, “Keanu” is a treat for die-hard film fans and those who just love the comedy of Key & Peele. But the film also has the potential to win over some converts.
Key & Peele enter the film as entirely different characters, a pair of shadowy assassins from Allentown who go ‘Boondock Saints’ in massacring an entire drug cartel operation. During the fierce firefight, the druglord’s kitty is seen fleeing from the carnage, slipping and sliding past bullets like Neo in “The Matrix”. The feline ends up on Rell’s doorstep, and as he’s still distraught over a recent breakup, the pet’s arrival immediately lifts his spirits. Naming him Keanu after his favorite action star, the two bond until a cat-napping occurs, forcing Rell and Clarence to find the missing kitty.
The search, kicked off by Rell’s wigger drug dealing neighbor (Will Forte, rockin’ Cross Colours and listening to Young Black Teenagers), leads them to the HPV strip club run by the 17th St. Blips, rejects from the Bloods and Crips. Dressed like they’re ready for a cappuccino at the local Starbucks, Rell and Clarence try to infiltrate the gang posing as the Allentown killers in order to get Keanu back from Cheddar (Method Man), who has renamed him New Jack.
Mistaken identity comedies rarely have much staying power because they rely so much on the single gag, but “Keanu” is literally a laugh-a-minute, often more. Most of it comes from Rell and Clarence’s ridiculously painful attempts to blend in to the gang lifestyle, fake swagger and abundant use of the N-word included. But all of their phony bravado gets them neck deep in drugs and murder, including a bloody encounter with Anna Faris (as herself) during a fateful game of Truth or Dare.
But when you see that little kitty’s face, all of the danger is worth it. In fact, there seem to be no shortage of hardened killers willing to die for that adorable kitten. Keanu is the face everyone is going to remember, and director Peter Atencio is smart enough to put that cute little mug in as many heartwarming predicaments as possible. If your heart doesn’t melt at every “meow” then somebody needs to check your pulse. Even as Keanu is involved in one high speed chase and gunfight after another (just like the real Keanu!!), you just want to take him home and feed him a warm saucer of milk.
With a script co-written by Peele, some of the jokes are carryovers from the TV show (Liam Neeson fans may rejoice), and certainly the action-comedy antics will be familiar to its loyal viewers. Obviously the chemistry between the two is perfect; they know one another so well it must be like a telepathic mind meld at this point. They’re somehow even better when the preposterous conceit is stretched to the limit, and they’re forced to dial up the characters to another level. When Rell and Clarence are backed into a corner, they may get flustered and blurt out something like “wordster to the turdster”, and yet it completely works. But what may come as a surprise is how well the action scenes have been choreographed, and how much emotional investment there can be in a movie so clearly meant to be absurd. Even when Rell gains a love interest in gang member Hi-C (Tiffany Haddish), you hope he lives long enough to make it last. And of course, you just want him to find Keanu and live happily ever after. It’s also impossible not to chuckle at Clarence’s bizarre fascination with George Michael, and the need to spread the word about the pop legend to anybody who will listen, even a car full of hardened killers. In the film’s most visually impressive moment that totally embraces its most outlandish qualities, Clarence finds himself in the middle of an ’80s George Michael music video. Which one you’ll have to see for yourself.
Whatever breed of kitten Keanu is, expect pet stores to sell out of them quick. And whatever Key & Peele want to do in the future, well, they’re going to have a tough time living up to the high bar “Keanu” has set.