The transition from small-screen sketch to big-screen comedy has defeated many of the great comedians. For every Wayne’s World or Blues Brothers, there’s a Superstar or an It’s Pat or A Night at the Roxbury or a Blues Brothers 2000. What tends to be hilarious at 3 minutes can often grow dull or irritating at 90 minutes.
Keanu, the first feature film from sketch comedy superstars Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele from the Comedy Central show Key & Peele, comes in with two advantages.
First, it isn’t adapting any of their known sketches. This isn’t just a full-length Meegan movie and as such they’re not restricted to doing trodding the same grooves they wore in their sketch show.
Second, there are few sketch comedians who are better pure actors than Key and Peele. The two have a remarkable penchant to imbue a strong and specific physicality and near-flawless understanding of who they’re playing in these sketches. It’s a skill that becomes enormously important in Keanu.
The film follows the adventures of two nerds, Clarence (Key) and Rell (Peele). Rell, a stoner artist, is despondent after his girlfriend left him. That is, until the single most adorable kitten you’ve ever seen comes into his life. The kitten, who he names Keanu, helps pull him out of his spiral.
Until Keanu gets kidnapped by the 17th Street Blips (a merger of the Bloods and the Crips), led by the vicious Cheddar (Method Man). Clarence, feeling desperate to prove his masculinity against his asshole neighbor (Rob Huebel), joins Rell to infiltrate the gang that stole Keanu and help get him back.
To be upfront, this movie rests on two jokes. Two good jokes, but only two of them.
One of these jokes is that Key and Peele are playing two guys who don’t fit a “gangster” conception of black masculinity and then having to infiltrate a world where that particular conception of black masculinity dominates. It’s a lot of putting on deeper and louder voices, swearing, shooting guns, and lying through their teeth while being openly incredulous that they’re swearing and shooting guns.
This is the aspect of the film that is most directly in conversation with Key & Peele. An underlying thematic of that show was an examination of the ways in which black men behave in America. It feels right in their wheelhouse to be continuing this, as it’s functionally easing themselves and their audience into the feature length.
It only suffers because it’s largely already tread ground for them. While I won’t discount that it must be new for people who aren’t familiar with them, and I certainly won’t discount the boldness still required to tackle these subjects, those who are familiar with the duo have seen these jokes before. Key and Peele have spent plenty of time highlighting the mosaic of the black experience and they’re not saying much new here.
The other joke is that Keanu is legitimately the most adorable kitten you’ve ever seen and he’s put in a variety of dangerous situations or hilarious poses. Really not much to this one, it’s just fun to watch an adorable animal be adorable.
Now, I understand how damning it must sound for a comedy to rest on so few jokes, but to be honest, it’s difficult to find a damn about that while you watch Keanu. There are enough laughs mined from those two jokes to get you through, but Keanu has the added bonus of honestly being a pretty damned well-constructed action comedy on top of it.
There’s a clear, clean story-based backbone to Keanu, attributable to Jordan Peele and Alex Rubens’ script. The characters have understandable motives and act in ways that actually make a lot of sense in a plot that really doesn’t spiral too wacky.
It’s a bit of a cliche story structure if you extract the part where they’re two nerds searching for a kitten, but that’s likely thanks to the homage aspect. In the lead-up to this film, Key and Peele talked extensively about basing in the story-based action comedies they grew up with. That comes through in a film that honestly works for me more as an action film with comedy in it than a comedy with action moments.
That action strength is actually largely thanks to the work of director Peter Atencio. He’s always been the secret weapon of Key & Peele, giving their sketches the cinematic quality that often distinguished them from their competitors and helped to underline their visual gags. He brings those skills to Keanu, actually directing some pretty entertaining and well laid-out action sequences, if a bit (okay, almost Synderian) abusive of the slow motion.
And we of course can’t discount the actors here. Method Man’s Cheddar is actually a fairly competent straight-man, bringing plenty of amusing moments without ever dropping the illusion that he’s actually a dangerous man in this world. Will Forte has been a consistently grand ol’ time ever since Saturday Night Live and his scumbag drug dealer character Hulka is good old scene-stealing fun from Forte
But it’s Key and Peele’s movie, so it’s only natural that they’re the highlight of the film. It isn’t just that they both bring impeccable comedic timing and dedication that have made their careers, though that certainly helps. There is quite possibly nothing funnier than any point in which Key puts on his “gangster” voice and starts yelling at the Blips members like an OG.
But it’s also the remarkable amount of sympathy that both of them imbue in their characters. It’s so easy to understand where they’re coming from. Peele knows that his struggle isn’t just losing his cat, but rather losing something that helped get him through having his world turned upside down. The way Peele plays that, all perfectly controlled rage and confusion, is proof that he may be one of the best actors working in comedy today. In fact, both him and Key are.
Keanu is a comedy that does not survive necessarily on the virtue of what it is. In less sure hands, this likely would have been much less entertaining or much less enjoyable, a few jokes strung together on an straight-to-VHS 80s action plotline. Keanu survives based on who made it with the heightened comedic powers of leads Key and Peele and the sure hand of Peter Atencio behind the camera.
And most importantly, it’s a strong announcement that whether on TV or on film, Key and Peele are a once-in-a-generation set of comic forces.