If you watched the trailer for “Keanu” — starring Jordan Peele and Keegan Michael Key of Comedy Central’s beloved series “Key & Peele” — and wondered “is this a real movie?” you’re not alone. In fact, it’s one of the auto-searches on Google. It’s understandable, as most know “Key & Peele” as a veritable factory of genre-bending viral sketches that engage with the tropes of Hollywood. But yes, “Keanu” is a real movie, a real funny one at that.
It’s also understandable if you might have assumed that “Keanu” was a parody of the Keanu Reeves actioner “John Wick,” since the stories of both films revolve around missing pets and the owners who will do anything for them. But no, “Keanu” was in the works before “John Wick” came out, so that connection is simply a very happy accident.
Directed by Peter Atencio, “Keanu” allows Key and Peele to take their specific brand of humorous cultural commentary and blow up the scale from the small screen to the big. Peele plays Rell, a hipster stoner and artist in LA suffering from a bad breakup. When a wayward kitten finds its way to his doorstep, Rell learns to love again, naming the feline Keanu. His cousin Clarence (Key) is a dorky corporate communications executive whose wife (Nia Long) wants him to learn how to relax.
During a bachelor weekend, Rell and Clarence return from a “Liam Neesons” movie to discover that Rell’s place has been burgled, and Keanu is missing. With intel from his pot dealer/neighbor Hulka (Will Forte), the two set off on an epic cat repossession adventure, getting mixed up in the drug dealing Blip gang lead by the intimidating Cheddar (Method Man).
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Much of the humor is centered on the cultural code-switching that Key and Peele are so adept in mining for humor. Their characters are two sort of lame, dorky guys who feel the need to act hard and posture when they are thrust into this situation as a self-defense mechanism. This actually gets them into even hotter water, when they take on the personas of “Tectonic” and “Shark Tank.” They morph their speaking voices from “Richard Pryor doing an impression of a white guy,” and “John Ritter,” respectively, to an exaggerated gangster slang, n-word and all (after much discussion and deliberation).
As biracial men, Key and Peele have always been uniquely poised to explore the gray areas of the performance and presentation of racial and cultural identity, and “Keanu” is no exception. They happily skewer the stereotypes of gangster culture, especially with an extended gag involving the music of George Michael. At the same time, the film presents the gangster life as an opportunity for hedonistic liberation from repression and constraint, with appropriate consequences of course.
At the center of this wild, violent melee between warring drug gangs and assassins is Keanu the kitty, so cute that it seems absolutely worth all the trouble. Seven kittens were used to portray Keanu and the performances of the animals are quite remarkable. “Keanu” is hilarious in the way you might expect from Key and Peele, but on a much larger and more grandiose level — the jokes hit harder and the scenarios are more outlandish, resulting in a legitimately epic action comedy that is at once a send up and love letter to the genre.
☆ ☆ ☆ (out of 4)
Cast: Keegan Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Method Man, Luis Guzman, Will Forte, Nia Long, Jason Mitchell, Rob Huebel
Director: Peter Atencio.
Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes
Rated: R for violence, language throughout, drug use and sexuality/nudity.