The first movie from the team behind Comedy Central’s Key & Peele sets itself apart from most action comedies in its prologue, in which an adorable grey kitten scampers through the slo-mo crossfire of a bloody warehouse massacre like he’s the hero of a John Woo movie. Unlike so many genre parodies of its kind, Keanu actually captures the style of its subject. It only gets more impressive when it mixes in some authentic-looking Michael Mann too.
The cat then runs all the way to Rell (Jordan Peele), a heartbroken layabout who’s recently been dumped by his girlfriend. Keanu the kitten brightens up Rell’s life considerably, much to the relief of his strait-laced cousin Clarence (Keegan-Michael Key). Their happiness is short-lived when Rell’s home is targeted by burglars looking for his drug-dealing neighbour (Will Forte) and they’ve catnapped the only one who was at home.
While Clarence’s family is away for the weekend, the pair go looking for the beloved cat, only to discover that Keanu has some unexpectedly complex connections within Los Angeles’ criminal underworld and it seems like every bad guy in the city wants to get hold of him too. Posing as the fearsome Allentown Boys (also played by Key and Peele) and trading on their reputation, Rell and Clarence go to extreme lengths to recover the kitty.
It’s a slightly thin premise for a movie and certainly we’ve seen this sort of comedy, in which two nerds bullshit their way through a dangerous situation, many times before, but you’ll be surprised at how well the chemistry between Key and Peele covers up any shortcomings in the story. Even if their transition to the big screen isn’t smooth in every regard, watching these two together in a movie is like seeing Simon Pegg and Nick Frost go from Spaced to Shaun Of The Dead – you’ll come away from Keanu wanting to see more movies with them in the future.
They both have to be versatile for this to work as well as it does. Key starts out as the straight man to Peele’s shiftless stoner, but when Rell is galvanised by the furry McGuffin and becomes more of a lead, Clarence gets more and more frazzled as he ventures further outside of his comfort zone. The tough voices that they adopt give way to panic attacks and sobbing just as soon as they’re alone and the sheer energy of their performances elevates the material just as much as the visuals.
Director Peter Atencio is a long-time collaborator with the duo and his work here, referencing Woo’s slow motion and Mann’s views of LA at night, is stellar. The movie has all of the pop culture savvy of the sketch show, distilled into a cliché-busting riposte to a whole bunch of tropes. The movie posters on Rell’s bedroom wall, ranging from Heat and New Jack City to Cloud Atlas and Edge Of Tomorrow, typify the cine-literacy that Atencio and writers Peele and Alex Rubens have brought to the table.
Then again, it also wanders slap-bang into as many clichés as it subverts. Clarence is anxious that his wife (an underserved Nia Long) is going to sleep with a family friend (a spectacularly slimy Rob Huebel) while she’s away. Rell’s ex-girlfriend is called every bad name under the sun, but there’s never any context given. And of course, if you’re playing Hollywood comedy bingo at home, a scene of accidental drug-taking should give you a full house.
It doesn’t all hang together especially well, and the main casualty of the pacing is the kitten, who isn’t on screen enough. But there are a lot of big laughs here, many of them coming from the George Michael-heavy soundtrack. Rell favours NWA, but Clarence is evangelical about the better half of Wham to the point of educating a gang of hardened criminals about the universal qualities of Father Figure while they sit in a getaway car, which Key turns into the height of hilarity.
But finally, it’s refreshing to see a comedy that doesn’t overdo the cameos. From Ab Fab to Zoolander 2, many of this year’s comedies have wheeled out celebs playing themselves for the heck of it. In contrast, Keanu has two excellent cameos, one of them somewhat inevitable and the other coming as a complete surprise because of the way in which it’s presented, as a gradual reveal over the course of an outrageous setpiece going on at the same time as Clarence’s musical seminar to the gang. They’re no less necessary than those of other films, but they’re precise and very, very funny.
Keanu is a one-joke movie, but that joke has infinite punchlines and pay-offs throughout this sometimes sketchy but always endearing comedy. It’s a little hit and miss, but it’s hoisted into more cinematic territory by Atencio’s assured direction. At best, it’s the greatest George Michael-soundtracked catnapping movie that Michael Mann never made. At worst, it’s a very special extended episode of Key & Peele, but that’s no bad thing at all.
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