REVIEW: Keanu [2016]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 100 minutes | Release Date: April 29th, 2016 (USA)
Studio: Warner Bros.
Director(s): Peter Atencio
Writer(s): Jordan Peele & Alex Rubens

“It’s like smoking crack with God”

After the massive success of former “MADtv” comics Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key’s eponymous sketch comedy show “Key & Peele” it was only a matter of time before the duo would grace the silver screen together. It’s actually surprising that it’s taken this long (the Comedy Central property went for five seasons before being put on indefinite hold by the creators) considering Key is everywhere you look these days on TV and film. Peele is the one you don’t notice very much (and only on TV if you do) and perhaps it’s because he was busy co-writing this gangbanger action spoof with Alex Rubens among other projects. The only sure-fire way to find something that showcases your unique talents is to make it yourself.

Alongside “Key & Peele” director Peter Atencio, Keanu feels just like one of the team’s socio-political commentary masked by genre convention sketches. The lead characters are two black men—Rell (Peele) and Clarence (Key)—caught within a suburban lifestyle that leads them to mock each other for “not being black enough.” They love their quiet existences wherein shutting down into an emotional ball of tears after being dumped and combatting the label of “too nice and empathetic” respectively can prove insurmountable points of conflict. But the days of being white-bred nerds cease when local drug kingpin Cheddar’s (Method Man, who played “Cheese” in “The Wire”) green enforcers accidentally burgle Rell’s house and steal his new, cute kitten named Keanu.

Rell’s neighbor and dealer Hulka (played by Will Forte in full reappropriated hip-hop glory) points them in the direction of Cheddar while Clarence—told by wife Hannah (Nia Long) to loosen up and find activities to engage in for him—pushes for a confrontation. So they head to strip club HPV, cultivate “hard” personas that frivolously throw the n-word into every sentence, and own some much-needed swagger to suicidally push Hi-C (Tiffany Haddish) and Bud (Jason Mitchell) into letting them see their boss. Hilariously choosing alter egos Tectonic and Shark Tank (similarly vocalized to how they announce names during their hugely popular college football rosters), Rell and Clarence jump headfirst down a rabbit hole of sex, drugs, and celebrity murder.

Just like Hot Fuzz used buddy cop tropes to create a legitimate buddy cop film while also mocking them, Keanu is as much an innocent-bystanders-get-embroiled-in-gang-life-fallout flick as the myriad selections of cinematic B-movie history it satirizes. The opening scene of ghost-like demon assassins The Allentown Brothers mowing down a church of drug slaves, bodyguards, and kingpins alike proves as much. There’s some crazy stuff going down and it’s headed towards the Los Angeles suburb where Rell and Clarence reside. The titular kitten—the lone survivor of the prologue’s carnage—unwittingly winds up at Rell’s door when he needs companionship most. One coincidence leads to another and suddenly our heroes must pretend to be The Allentown Brothers in order to win Keanu back.

This means putting their skill-sets to work on a drug deal Cheddar forces them to make as services rendered to reclaim the cat. Those skills include Clarence’s team-building prowess and George Michael adoration opposite Rell’s pot-smoking abilities. They deepen their voices, forget all grammar, and learn to giggle freely as they do what’s necessary to win Hi-C, Bud, Trunk (Darrell Britt-Gibson), and Stitches (Jamar Malachi Neighbors) to their side. Their interactions together simultaneously become hilarious situational comedy and foreshadowing of character development that will be used once the climax turns full Scarface shootout. It’s all outlandish and borderline stupid, but Key and Peele have not yet failed to make those things look smart in their deconstructions of racial, gender, and class stereotypes.

Besides the cinematic references—not to mention posters for classic actioners like New Jack City gracing Rell’s walls or cute-as-hell calendar mock-ups depicting Keanu “in the movies”—come stylistic callbacks to “Key & Peele”. Keep your eyes peeled for the Liam Neesons gracing a movie theater billboard advertising a revenge flick called The Substitute Teacher (the name of the sketch that gave us A-A-Ron and will soon be a feature-length comedy written by Rubens and Rich Talarico). Bask in the comedic pair’s gloriously synchronized stiff turn around and walk away a la the doormen sketch when riled up too much for words. Even the scenes of the two driving recall their TV show’s final two seasons and their rapport has never been better.

Things fall apart a bit by the conclusion when everything they worked so hard to cultivate must be wrapped up on the gangster side and domestic side, but it’s just unbridled and wild enough to succeed on its own despite its looser grasp on the material. The film never holds itself strictly to reality—how else could you include a dream sequence with Keanu Reeves himself—but the sense of danger to Rell and Clarence’s actions unfortunately disappears into full-blown cartoonish mayhem when Luis Guzmán enters the fray. As the drama intensifies, Peele and Key flip a switch to turn their performances as Tectonic and Shark Tank from impersonation to badass. So watching them once more devolve into screaming fools does disappoint.

Thankfully they don’t shy from the consequences of what occurs—especially since everything is predicated on finding a stolen cat that isn’t really theirs. Sure there’s a modicum of self-defense and fear involved in the heinous acts they become privy to if not deemed full accomplices for, but they brought it on themselves. And just as they find their inner gangsters, the stone-cold killers (either fearsome like Hi-C and Bud, unassuming like Trunk, or downright insane like Stitches) get to discover their softer sides of emotion and comradery. It’s a learning experience for everyone to push themselves to the brink of decency and morality by acting upon pure survival instinct. Who knew “Father Figure” would prove such a galvanizing force for peace?

[1] © 2016 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. AND RATPAC-DUNE ENTERTAINMENT LLC. Photo Credit: Steve Dietl. Caption: (L-r) KEEGAN-MICHAEL KEY as Clarence and JORDAN PEELE as Rell in New Line Cinema’s action comedy “KEANU,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
[2] © 2016 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. AND RATPAC-DUNE ENTERTAINMENT LLC. Photo Credit: STEVE DIETL. Caption: METHOD MAN as Cheddar in New Line Cinema’s action comedy “KEANU,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
[3] © 2016 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. AND RATPAC-DUNE ENTERTAINMENT LLC. Photo Credit: Steve Dietl. Caption: WILL FORTE as Hulka in New Line Cinema’s action comedy “KEANU,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

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