It warms the heart that the stars, creators, and writers behind a smart cable sketch show can get a major studio to bankroll a movie that’s both a loving riff on a recent cult favorite Keanu Reeves actioner and a feature-length joke about code-switching. (That’s when people move between two or more types of speech depending on the context or situation.) You don’t see a movie like that every day. The problem with Keanu, the action comedy concocted by Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele of Comedy Central’s terrific, recently departed Key and Peele, is that beyond those two admittedly funny ideas, there’s not much else going on. Sure, it’s amusing to watch these guys bring their show’s comic sensibilities to the big screen, but the results play like a good suggestion for a long sketch stretched thin across 98 minutes.
Clearly taking as its inspiration John Wick, Reeves’ fun ex-hitman-gets-revenge-on-the-mobsters-who-killed-his-puppy movie, Keanu starts with a dopey unambitious stoner (Peele) finding an absolutely adorable kitten on his doorstep. This helps him get over his recent breakup by bringing new meaning to his life. The cat is named Keanu, and he really brings the guy’s life together. Too bad, then, that a drug dealing gang leader (Method Man) kidnaps the little pet in a case of mistaken identity. Setting aside all rational reasons to not get involved, Peele recruits the help of his straight-laced suburbanite cousin (Key) to infiltrate the gang and get the cat back. This being a light and silly comic thriller, of course the crowd of toughs down at the 17th street strip club (including Tiffany Haddish and Jason Mitchell) mistakes the two dweebs for notorious hitmen and begs them to go along on a delivery. They’ll trade them the cat for their help. And, come on, isn’t he cute enough to excuse the danger?
Brilliantly adaptable performers, Key and Peele, shifting between their usual speech – jokingly described as sounding like “Richard Pryor’s impersonation of a white guy” – to deeper timbres and slangy talk, and moving between stiff ambling and loose swagger in their steps, portray the fish-out-of-water elements terrifically. It’s funny to see Key cooing to his wife (Nia Long) on the phone before spotting a dealer in his peripheral vision and switching smoothly to a gruff patter. The movie returns to this joke again and again, getting a smirk or a smile out of two meek guys bouncing between different behaviors, acting the part to convince the tough guys they belong. Other jokes involve: threats of danger and/or sudden bursts of violence startling our leads, an adorable cat pawing or meowing, and a running joke involving the music of George Michael. (At first Key is teased for liking him, but later turns the gang into big fans.) As the stakes get higher, drugs are passed around, people are bloodily killed, and it’s clear our leads are going to be lucky to get out alive, let alone with Keanu in tow.
This is yet another R-rated comedy about guys who need to learn to take responsibility for themselves and do so by following their ids and getting in over their heads. What’s smart is allowing this to be the rare man-child rampage with actual, sensible consequences. The screenplay by Peele and Alex Rubens, a writer on Key and Peele, never shies away from the danger involved, never forgetting life and death matters at hand. When a dumb pot dealer (Will Forte) is kidnapped, it’s treated as ominous. When two lumbering heavies pull out gleaming torture implements, it’s a little scary. When a drug deal with a Hollywood star (a fun cameo) goes south, it’s shocking. This stomps out some of the laughs, but at least it really commits to how wrong-headed its characters are, up to and including the enjoyable reversal in its climactic moments. Where others action comedies would shrug off its heroes crimes, this one realizes there’s no Get Out of Jail Free card.
So it has its moments. But as Keanu moves along, there’s no sense of build or variation to any of the humor. It opens with its silly juxtapositions and amusing concept and doesn’t take them anywhere. When not repeating similar beats – one of the guys expresses surprise, drops character, then stumblingly improvises a recovery; a gang member reveals surprising tenderness, then quickly toughens back up – the comedy falls back on the sorts of square-on-a-drug-trip and profane sputtering we’ve seen over and over again. Director Peter Atencio, so wonderful at committing to a variety of stock scenarios with specificity and cinematic sweep on Key and Peele, creates a reasonable facsimile of a crime film setting, but within it finds little of interest. The frictions established in the opening half hour are merely reiterated and repeated in the next hour, as characters travel predictable emotional arcs.
There may be a few nice surprises here and there, but the whole feels a little underwritten, the jokes a tad too sparse and the thriller mechanics not involving enough to work on that level alone. It’s amusing, but not as sharp or varied as you’d expect from comedians who spent five seasons of TV constructing smart commentary by skirting potentially insulting or stereotypical material and finding sideways approaches to unexpected punchlines. Their movie theater talkers, auctioned slaves, inner city substitute, and football player sketches are perfect examples of finding funny observations beyond the cheap, obvious, and offensive places where lesser talents would’ve been happy to stop. Keanu is a good idea that makes for a passable diversion, yet it’s considerably less interesting, and gets fewer laughs, than almost anything they did on their show. But, man, that’s one cute cat.