The first motion picture from the creative team behind Comedy Central's 2012-2015 sketch comedy series "Key & Peele"director Peter Atencio, co-writers Jordan Peele and Alex Rubens, and actors Peele and Keegan-Michael Key"Keanu" is a rough-edged yet frequently inspired action-comedy. The film has something of a training-wheel feel, stretching its plot thin while nevertheless providing surefire evidence all the above talents have more successful big-screen ventures ahead of them. If it's not the knee-slapper it thinks it is, it is auspicious in its willingness to break through the safe confines of commercial moviemaking while toppling expectations to comically brazen effect. Most surprising of all, even amidst the carnage and gunplay, the movie is rather sweet.
Wallowing in self-pity as he mourns a recent breakup, Rell Williams (Jordan Peele) serendipitously finds a new reason to live when a kitten shows up on his doorstep. No sooner has he adopted his new whiskered friend and begun photographing him for a cat calendar of movie reenactments when he returns home to find his home ransacked and little Keanu abducted. A fight to find and retrieve Keanu ensues, sending Rell and family-man best friend Clarence (Keegan-Michael Key) on a raucous, deadly weekend journey into L.A.'s narcotics underworld as they lock horns with kingpin Cheddar (Method Man) and find themselves posing as a pair of cutthroat assassins who recently shot up a church-based drug operation. Clearly, they are both in way over their heads, but what choice have they got when Rell's furry pal is in the hands of bad guys?
Whether a result of clever editing or honest-to-goodness raw talent, the eponymous feline in "Keanu" is a total charmer. Alas, he is primarily used as the catalyst for the rest of the story to take shape. The stars, then, are Jordan Peele (2012's "Wanderlust
") and Keegan-Michael Key (2015's "Vacation
"), and they are a lot of fun as straight-laced guys forced into playing the roles of murderous, street-hardened hoodlums Tectonic and Shark Tank. Their agreement with Cheddar to show the ropes to a quartet of drug dealers in training in exchange for Keanu sends them, predictably, on a series of madcap misadventures. What isn't as easily anticipated is how far the film is willing to go, pitting a zany screwball situation against the backdrop of a gritty criminal landscape where people can easily get shot upand doat a moment's notice. Rell and Clarence place themselves in seriously dangerous circumstances, shocking each other and themselves with what they are capable. Even as the pacing occasionally goes slack, that the protagonists' ultimate safety is not guaranteed lends the proceedings an added level of involvement and urgency.
In an appealing supporting turn, Tiffany Haddish (2008's "Meet the Spartans
") is a real find as the savvy Hi-C, a rookie female drug dealer whom Rell and Clarence are ordered to train. In spite of what he knows is a relationship that couldn't possibly work, Rell cannot help but be drawn to Hi-C, seeing within her the potential to break away from a life of crime if she wanted (she says she doesn't). Peele and Haddish share a wonderful chemistry during their one-on-one interactions where they finally drop their defenses. As Clarence, left to his own devices as his wife (Nia Long) and daughter (Jordyn A. Davis) are out of town, Key is especially amusing, teaching his apprentices about the musical pleasures of George Michael while finding a backbone within himself he didn't realize he had. In one of the best extended cameos in recent memory, Anna Faris (2012's "The Dictator
") threatens to steal the show midway through, in a sequence that is at once bizarre, brashly self-deprecating, and hilariously irreverent.
As often happens when a relatively slim narrative pushes toward the 90-minute mark, "Keanu" threatens to run out of steam in the homestretch as Rell and Clarence face one obstacle too many in bringing the feline to safety. Just as the film seems to have backed itself into a corner, director Peter Atencio and screenwriters Jordan Peele and Alex Rubens devise some exceedingly clever, oddly plausible ways for it to work itself out. This goes for the picture as a whole, too; for all its indulgences and jokes which don't stick their landing, the film comes back fighting and finishes on a strong note. A subjectively dark comedy with a culminating sunny disposition, "Keanu" dares to take chances at the risk of failing. With the charismatic Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key front and center, the gamble has paid off.