Director: Peter Atencio
Stars: Jordan Peele, Keegan-Michael Key
3 (out of 5) Globes
The first movie by comedy duo Key and Peele isn’t too different from the first sketch on their defunct show “Key & Peele.” About 30 seconds long, the skit finds two black men — one yuppie, the other gay — pretending to be harder than they are, because they think the other is a dangerous thug. “Keanu,” by contrast, runs just under 100 minutes, and it mostly offers untold variations on a variation on the same satirical idea. Write what you know.
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It’s a rich idea, though, and Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele — though only Peele had a hand in the script — are talented enough to puff it out without padding it out. Kittens help. Couch-ridden by a sudden dumping, Peele’s Rell is brought back to life by the sudden appearance of a reliably meowing black-on-grey tabby, which he names Keanu. So objectively aborbs is the critter that when local gang members (led by Method Man) accidentally break into his home and take him, Rell thinks nothing of teaming with his bougie friend Clarence (Key) and rolling into a strip club lair to take back what’s his.
This requires subterfuge, in their case ditching their white-ish patois and pretending to be fearsome toughs (from “Allentown”) named Tectonic and Shark Tank. What starts out as a feature-length “kitty!” YouTube video turns into a lampoon of both action movies and the 21st century concept of the black male. Given the chance to play hoods who see how many n-words they can cram into each sentence, the mild-mannered Rell and Clarence go whole hog, suppressing their identities as nerds who see movies at the Arclight and can rattle off Anna Faris’ filmography unprompted. (Another nice touch: Rell’s apartment houses posters for both “New Jack City” and “Cloud Atlas.”)
Key and Peele have gone to this well before, usually several times an episode. “Keanu” comes to the same conclusion as most of their oeuvre: that even the slackerish (Peele) or borderline metrosexual (Key), who defy stereotypes about their race, secretly enjoy acting tougher than they are. It can be disappointing that they don’t try out a new idea, or that they only somewhat build on what they’ve done before. That they get away with it has to do with their charm, their assured way around a joke and their ability to milk a gimmick for all its worth, even after five seasons on TV. And when all else fails: kitty! (Sometimes in a do-rag and chain.)
It’s still a first film, and some scenes last a bit longer than they should, or fail to take a truly inventive shape. The script can fall back on cliches, like a token love interest, though it helps the one played by Tiffany Haddish is a gang enforcer seen at one point shooting upscale druggies. On the few occasions it turns into an action movie send-up, it’s insufficiently wild, with director Peter Atencio (who helmed every “Key & Peele” episode) mostly falling back on slow-motion gunplay.
But when it needs to cut it cuts, not just when it comes to its heroes cosplaying but stray bits, like a dread-ed white character (Will Forte) who begs not to be gutted, crying “I know everything about hip-hop!” (The film's obvious centerpiece: a scene where Clarence excitedly turns a carful of hoods onto George Michael.) And perhaps Key and Peele are like those content creators who spend their careers repeating and refining the same idea. Obvious cinephiles, maybe they’re less like Martin Brest — the hero of funny-but-violent action comedies, like “Beverly Hills Cop” and “Midnight Run" — and more like the Dardenne brothers or Yasujiro Ozu.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge