Transitioning from sketch comedy to feature films ain’t easy. Generally, the results feel either like a single sketch overextended to 90 minutes or a series of premises loosely assembled into an unsatisfying narrative. Thankfully, Keegan Michael-Key and Jordan Peele (a.k.a. ‘Key & Peele’, duh) have pulled off the transition by simply making a funny movie and not getting too ambitious about it.
‘Keanu’ is essentially a mild riff on ‘John Wick’ and delivers enough gags within a simple story to work. It ain’t high art, but it’s funny and entertaining and most importantly wraps up before overstaying its welcome. That’s enough to suggest these guys might do just fine in the movie game. Plus, their cinematic debut taps into the world’s almost inexplicable love for cute cats doing cute things, and that should work out for them at the box office.
Peele plays Rell, a lovable layabout who was recently dumped by his girlfriend but finds solace when an adorable kitten shows up on his doorstep. Suddenly, the guy has a reason to live. Even his best friend Clarence (Key, naturally) appreciates little kitten Keanu’s new place in their lives. The pair make plans for a big weekend when Clarence’s wife (Nia Long) takes their daughter on a getaway with her creepily friendly acquaintance (Rob Huebel). Things seem to be going well until Rell returns home to find his apartment trashed and his beloved Keanu missing. A quick interrogation of his pot dealing neighbor (Will Forte, always welcome in any comedy) reveals that the culprits were likely a local gang led by Method Man who work out of a strip club. The geeky buddies decide to head down there to get the cat, but worry they aren’t black enough, so they adopt different voices and nicknames like Shark Tank to sneak in. It works a little too well. Soon they’re mistaken for a pair of silent assassins (also played by Key and Peele) and help the gang out with drug deals to earn back Keanu.
So yeah, the movie doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel. It’s essentially an action comedy (with the emphasis on comedy) flavored by some mild racial satire and a whole bunch of cute kitten mugging. Working with regular ‘Key & Peele’ writer Alex Rubens and director Peter Atencio, the gang translate their particular brand of humor to the big screen with ease. Peele and Key are absolutely hilarious in their central roles. The stabs at gentle racial satire deliver some big laughs and clever subplots (like how Clarence’s motivational teambuilding career helps unite the gangsters, or his hysterical love for George Michael). Their TV show always had a nice sense of cinematic parody as well, and Atencio gets to bust out his directing chops in full force here with some genuinely impressive action scenes. It looks and feels like a real action movie, which is sadly all too rare in projects with recognizable comedians dabbling in big screen boom-boom.
Key and Peele are also wise enough to surround themselves with talented performers to help carry the laugh load, such as an absolutely insane Will Forte, a delightfully scene-stealing Luis Guzman, and Anna Farris in a hysterically unhinged cameo as herself. The central duo also tone down their typically (and lovingly) ridiculous performance style to actually feel like real humans, and they take advantage of the R-rated freedom to dabble in a little extra filth than they could get away with on Comedy Central without ever falling into F-bomb overkill.
Predictably, the title cat ends up stealing plenty of scenes, but thankfully the filmmakers never dwell too much on the power of cutesy kitten shenanigans to win over viewers. They play that note juuuust enough. Unfortunately, Key and Peele’s inexperience with screenwriting and drama proves to be a bit of a problem during a tacked-on love story and a rushed conclusion that wraps things up too cleanly – but these are typical growing pains for comedians working in a feature length format for the first time and are far from movie killers.
Make no mistake, ‘Keanu’ is no masterpiece and likely won’t even be the best or funniest comedy of the summer. However, it’s a perfectly hilarious and entertaining way to kill 90 minutes in a movie theater and at least doesn’t feel like every other comedy out there. It’s nice that Key and Peele actually leaned into to the cinematic potential of this project rather than merely making it a star-launching vehicle (although that element works just fine too). It’ll be interesting to see what these guys can do on the big screen if they get a little more ambitious.
There will very likely be a genuinely great Key and Peele movie in the future if the stars find box office success and keep at it. ‘Keanu’ isn’t that movie, but it’s a damn funny mainstream comedy and those are much harder to come by than the studios would like to admit. If you only see one movie this year that features gun violence, racial satire, George Michael singalongs, and a kitten re-enacting ‘The Shining’, make it ‘Keanu’. Granted, this will likely be the only movie that combines those special elements, but that’s just one more reason to check this thing out.