As smart about identity politics as Dear White People and as amusing a spoof of Michael Bay movies as, well, Pain & Gain, Keanu marks a promising big-screen debut for the comedy duo of Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele. Long may they skewer puffed-up posturing and slow-motion shootouts alike.
The thinness of the plot is the movie’s first good joke. After falling in love with a lost little kitten, single movie nerd Rell Williams (Peele) comes home one night to discover his apartment ransacked and the kitten — which he has lovingly named Keanu — missing. He enlists his uptight, family-man cousin Clarence (Key) to follow a lead that takes them from their cozy, middle-class existence right into the heart of New Jack City gangsterdom. (Indeed, Keanu has been forcibly adopted by a drug dealer and rechristened “New Jack.”)
Keanu will be infinitely more fun if you get the many movie reference sprinkled throughout. Interviewed by police after the robbery, Rell is wrapped in the sort of heavy blanket that action-flick trauma victims have worn since time immemorial. Earlier, the cousins share a love for the revenge movies of “Liam Neesons.” And then there are the action scenes of Keanu itself, in which director Peter Atencio (a longtime collaborator on Comedy Central’s Key & Peele) tops the bombast of Bay with an operatic dollop of John Woo. Indeed, the opening shootout takes place in a church, but in place of doves we have the kitten, dodging gunfire in slow motion and scampering through the filtered slits of sunlight made by the bullet holes. A running gag is that whenever Keanu appears, the score shifts into the sort of shimmering synthesizer motif that you may recognize from every emotional moment in your average Bay film. And sure enough, Transformers composer Steve Jablonsky is responsible for some of the music here.
Nearly everyone we meet is wearing a false persona, which eventually gets unmasked.
Beyond the inside baseball movie stuff, Keanu entertains because of Key and Peele’s unique dynamic as a comedy duo. Not a joke is forced; every comic beat is in its proper place. And their competitive friendship, rooted in a shared unease over being nerdy odd men out in what is commonly accepted as “black culture,” gives every interchange political bite. Case in point: one of their arguments is over which one of them was beaten up by bigger thugs back in school. Machismo by proxy, I guess.
Rell and Clarence must pass as just those sort of thugs when they visit a strip club in search of Keanu. There’s something dazzling about the way both actors shed identities so quickly — a change in pitch, an adjustment in volume, a shift in vocabulary. (Not that they’re entirely convincing; the club comes to such a standstill when they start speaking that even a dancer pauses to raise an eyebrow.) The code-switching bits are funny, while also functioning as a commentary on how African-Americans are forced to shift identities — to embrace certain stereotypes and eschew others — depending on the social situation at hand.
The movie’s identity politics involve more than its two main characters. Nearly everyone we meet is wearing a false persona, which eventually gets unmasked. Rell’s pot-dealing neighbor (Will Forte) is a white guy trying to pass as Rastafarian(ish). The snarling gangster crew that Rell and Clarence fall in with (Tiffany Haddish, Jason Mitchell, Darrell Brett-Gibson and Jamar Malachi Neighbors) are revealed to be genuine individuals, each with their own troubled history. (After Clarence’s cajoling, they also become genuine fans of George Michael.) Anna Faris even shows up playing a deranged, drugged-up version of herself (talk about identity issues). There are really only two characters in the film who can be taken at face value: the dealer played by Method Man (who remains a stereotype) and Clarence’s straight-talking wife (Nia Long), who calls him out when he uses dismissive slang while talking to her on the phone. “Why are you talking to me like that?” she demands. “You’ve never talked to me like that.”
At its smartest, Keanu makes all of us reconsider why we talk the way we do. At its funniest, it has a kitten performing action-movie calisthenics in slow motion. What more could anyone want?