In the new movie (and the first outing) by comedy duo Key and Peele, Rell Williams (Peele) is dumped by his girlfriend and spirals into a self-destructive depression, the sort of depression they have in movies where the sufferer can do little more than lay in bed, smoke pot, and cry. His closest friend, Clarence (Key) comes over to help cheer him up, but once he arrives he finds that Rell has already made a new friend: A kitten that, unbeknownst to them, fled a drug-related shootout, and meowed at the door. Rell and the kitten that he names Keanu hit it off immediately and his depression of having been dumped is replaced by an obsession and a love for that kitten. And when that kitten is stolen in a robbery on Kell’s apartment, he and Clarence must do whatever they can to get Keanu back.
Rell and Clarence infiltrate a gang of drug dealers called the 17th Street Blips (because they kicked out the Bloods and the Crips–they’re that tough) led by Cheddar (Method Man) and Hi-C (Tiffany Haddish). Disguising themselves as tougher hitmen, and not the upper middle class guys that they really are, if they simply perform a few tasks and show the gang how things are supposedly done by professional criminals, Cheddar will give Rell the cat.
Keanu works in a lot of action movie tropes beautifully, even down to a classic Spaghetti Western-styled case of mistaken identity. Keanu plays like a trip through Action Movie Filmmaking 101 with tongue planted firmly in cheek, the creators clearly enjoying their creation and having a good time making it.
The set-up and second act of Keanu is so good and funny and so well-executed that it more than makes up for a third act that sort of drags on clumsily. By no means do I mean that the third act is bad, just that it wasn’t as good as the first two-thirds of the movie. Really, all Keanu needs is a slight trimming here and there for some doldrums, a quick fix of the third act, and it’s one of the finest comedies you could ever hope for. It’s that close to greatness and falls just short. As it is now, in its current form, it’s an incredibly watchable movie that I would recommend within the blink of an eye. It’s really good.
With my minor quibbles aside, I want to talk more about what makes it work, and what makes it work is how it can seem to juggle sudden, unexpected violence along with the comedic elements. The violence in Keanu has actual, real consequences and it was unexpected to see such sincerity and heart come from a movie like this, when it doesn’t even come from more serious-minded movies that are actually about violence. The movie has a sensitive core and it seems to actually give a shit about the state of the world in which people are driven to a life of violence in gangs like the 17th Street Blips.
The most surprising thing that works about Keanu is its occasional detours into more serious territory. Instead of going for an easy gag, sometimes Key and Peele along with director Peter Atencio will decide to allow a plot development linger and become something more serious. It’s a film that, at times, seems more concerned with the story than it is with going for a cheap laugh. This philosophy works to its detriment as well as its benefit. Even when it doesn’t work, it’s at the very least admirable.
And, of course, none of this would have worked at all if the titular Keanu hadn’t been the cutest cat in the world. It took, in all, 7 trained cats to play Keanu, with no digital renderings of the animal, which was a wise decision. You need the audience to go, “Awwww” whenever that comes on screen–and they did–and a CGI creation will only create that awful Uncanny Valley Effect of something that’s not quite alive, and no one wants to have that uneasiness when watching a movie about the lengths someone will go through in order to save an adorable kitten. It’s worth noting, also, that the kittens who played a part in the making of the movie were shelter kittens who have all since been adopted and all have permanent homes.
In the future, I think Key and Peele will continue to put out good work and quality movies. They have a great, relatable chemistry together. Keanu was really good, and it worked more often than not. This is one of those movies where I suspect that it may improve with repeat viewings, that the more you see it, the more your enjoyment may grow.