Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele have been among the most thought-provoking entertainers of the past five years, stretching the known bounds of sketch comedy, racial comedy, pop culture parody and political comedy.
That they now have been given the resources to do a film and returned a timid albeit well-executed but ultimately forgettable piece of popcorn cinema is a shame.
I will admit that it was difficult to go into their film “Keanu” with anything but heightened expectations. What these guys and director Peter Atencio did on their Comedy Central series rivaled what Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg did on the big screen with “Shaun of the Dead” and “Hot Fuzz.” Key, Peele and Atencio showed they had the writing, acting and production chops to mimic the likes of Jon Woo, Michael Bay and countless other iconic action directors.
But “Keanu,” an obvious riff on the titular actor’s “John Wick,” feels relatively toothless and uninspired on its own, and it certainly suffers in comparison to the cable-TV sketches the team has produced to date.
Rell (Peele) is a stoner going through a breakup, and his cousin Clarence (Key) is a painfully WASP-y suburbanite. Both of them assume the veneer of hard-edged criminals when Rell’s new cat is abducted by a gang led by Cheddar (Method Man), who confuses the once-gentle men for a pair of assassins known as the Allentown phantoms (think the white, dreadlocked twins of the “Matrix” sequels crossed with the Salamanca Cousins from “Breaking Bad”).
Key and Peele have been two of the very few mainstream talents to seriously explore being biracial in America, usually with laughs. The basic plot of Rell and Clarence forced to walk in two worlds of stereotypes — white and black, suburban and urban, mild-mannered and gangster — resonates in what surely is a personal way for them, but it’s nothing new and barely holds a candle to what cable watchers have already seen from them.
And the overall tone of “Keanu” suggests that delving this deeply into the racial themes might be unnecessary. There doesn’t seem to be any grand treatise or philosophy at play — most of the laughs beyond the duo’s uneasy co-opting of gangster culture come by way of Clarence’s love of George Michael music (An entire drug hallucination scene recreates, in grainy VHS-style footage, one of the Brit singer’s top music videos).
The playfulness works in doses, in much the same way the pair’s patently goofy “East/West College Bowl” names sketch on their cable show, which was a similar exercise in toying with culture without a tremendously poignant underlying point — at least not one that hasn’t already been probed by way of, say, “Freakonomics.” But most of the fish-out-of-water moments work simply because that’s all they are — the thrill of watching Clarence pull off a “Matrix”-style wall flip, simply because he’s talked too big a game not to, is genuinely entertaining.
But don’t go in expecting a genuine parody film. “Keanu” does not attempt to jam-pack all the copycat photography and easter eggs into the background as possible in 90 or so minutes. There’s no inspired satire about the nature of the action/revenge films that are being cribbed. The “Heat” and “New Jack City” posters on Rell’s wall are blatant and easy ways to telegraph where the story is headed, and it never truly zigs from its itended zag.
If anything, “Keanu” works more as a longform “Key & Peele” parody of “Key & Peele.” The characters — who are not themselves supposed to be exaggerated versions of the actors — say “Liam Neesons” in the same way as the comedic duo do on the show. The marquee on a Cinerama they drive past advertises a movie for Key’s substitute teacher character from the show. The proliferate scenes of dialogue back and forth in a car harkens back to the cable show’s car-based segues in later seasons.
In a way, “Keanu” represents Key and Peele doing what they do best, only not nearly as well as they’ve done on the small screen. Their comedy that once felt vital and edgy while simultaneously bearing the hallmarks of a big-budget blockbuster is reined in — feel-good and domesticated, much like the four-legged focus of the story.
But that cat sure is cute.
“Keanu” is rated R. Running time: One hour, 40 minutes. Two and a half stars out of five.