With Monty Python as the exception that proves the rule, the big screen has been historically unkind to sketch comedy teams hoping their offbeat sensibility will survive the leap from five-minute bits to 90-minute features — and from cult fervor to mainstream success. Some fail outright, like Mr. Show’s Run Ronnie Run or The Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy, while others are embraced by fans after tanking, like The Lonely Island’s Hot Rod or The State’s Wet Hot American Summer. But the creative risks are always the same: Either they attempt to string together sketches on a bigger scale, which can make a film lumpy and episodic, or they take a thin comic premise and stretch it well past the breaking point.
For their first outing, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, the duo responsible for the brilliant Comedy Central show Key & Peele, fall squarely in the latter camp. Keanu doesn’t have nearly enough story to go the distance, sputtering through an ’80s-style action-comedy that follows a feline MacGuffin through an L.A. gangland misadventure. And yet Key and Peele have such a sensationally giddy chemistry together that the film’s raggedness plays, in their hands, like a kind of spontaneity. Whenever the fish-out-of-water jokes seem completely wrung-out, they’re standing over the script with defibrillators, tossing in a one-liner or a look or an inspired digression to shock the corpse back to life.
By title and description, Keanu sounds like a parody of the Keanu Reeves action favorite John Wick, with Key and Peele infiltrating an army of bad guys on behalf of an adorable pet. Significantly more roundabout than Reeves’ puppy-revenge tale, the film casts the pair as best friends with divergent lives: Clarence (Keegan-Michael Key) is a straitlaced corporate manager with a wife, a kid, and George Michael on shuffle, and Rell (Peele) is a bong-hitting slacker who’s struggling through a recent break-up. Rell finds instant salvation when the world’s most adorable kitten turns up at his doorstep, but loses the animal just as quickly when someone breaks into his apartment.
Acting on a tip that a gang ran off with the cat, Clarence and Rell toughen up their conspicuously dopey, middle-class vibe and step into a seedy strip club that serves as headquarters for “The 17th Street Blips” — so named for being castaways from the Bloods and the Crips. The Blips’ leader, Cheddar (Method Man), mistakes them for a pair of feared assassins and Clarence and Rell roll with it, dubbing themselves “Shark Tank” and “Techtonic” and affecting a toughness that doesn’t come naturally. Before handing over the cat, however, Cheddar enlists them to teach his young dealers how to distribute a new synthetic drug that’s poised to take over the streets.
So begins a long, surreal urban night in the vein of Adventures in Babysitting or After Hours, with the buddies unwittingly taking center stage in an all-out turf war. Keanu‘s go-to joke plays up Clarence and Rell’s pitiful attempts at gangsta authenticity, which at best seem borrowed from half-engaged viewings of New Jack City. Key is particularly funny as an effete teetotaler whose Members-Only tough-guy routine reminds Rell of Richard Pryor playing a white guy. The film also gets laughs from “Shark Tank” and “Techtonic” persuading young hoodlums to see the virtues in corporate team-building exercises and Michael’s post-Wham! ballads.
The mission to rescue the kitten sends Clarence and Rell pinballing from one life-threatening situation to the next, to the point where Keanu feels sloppier and more haphazard than it actually is. Working from a script Peele penned with Alex Rubens, the pair asks the audience to hang on for the ride along with their characters, and their shaggy, anything-goes approach reflects the show’s spirit better than a more straightforward action-comedy might have. And beneath the silliness is the bittersweet story of a longstanding friendship withered by adulthood. Rell wants the kitten back so badly because he can’t rely on his other companion. Keanu is about finding them both.