Review: Key & Peele Elevate The Formulaic But Funny KEANU

There are plenty of laughs to be found in Keanu, the big-screen debut of former Comedy Central stars Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele. That the movie works in spite of its cliche-ridden script is a testament to its stars' excellent chemistry and infectious personalities.

A pair of silent assassins named the Allentown Brothers (played by Key & Peele in heavy makeup) burst into a drug den and blast the dealers into oblivion, and perhaps the cutest kitten in cinema history makes a daring escape from the bloodbath. After dodging bullets and dead bodies, the kitten wanders the streets of Los Angeles and eventually ends up on the doorstep of Rell (Peele), a stoner artist whose recent breakup has left him devastated. Rell names the kitten Keanu ("I think it means 'cool breeze.'") and his lousy mood instantly improves. Rell and his uptight cousin Clarence (Key) go out to see a "Liam Neesons" movie, and when they return, they're horrified to discover that Rell's apartment has been ransacked and Keanu has been stolen. On a tip from Rell's drug dealer neighbor (Will Forte), the cousins head to a nearby strip club looking for Cheddar (Method Man), the leader of the thieving gangsters, but these guys are both far too nerdy to fit in as themselves. So they adopt hard-talking gangster alter egos, are quickly confused for the Allentown Brothers (who want Keanu for themselves), and highjinks ensue as they try to survive the escalating situation.

For a movie featuring two of the best sketch comics in the world, the script (written by Peele and Alex Reubens) feels surprisingly formulaic. There are cliches at practically every turn — mistaken identity, the uptight nerd who ultimately lets loose and finds himself, a drug trip hallucination sequence, and obsession with an '80s/'90s pop song/artist (here, Clarence absolutely loves George Michael). But while the duo's Comedy Central series would have subverted or commented on any of those tropes, the movie simply leans on them to extend the runtime, which feels longer than its 98 minutes. The guys grapple with stereotypes of black culture and masculinity, but it's all very surface-level stuff, and never feels as sharp or witty as their sketches (though Peter Atencio, who directed the series, is behind the camera here as well).

This is not a film overly concerned with realism. Its opening scene involves a cat miraculously surviving a shootout, roving through downtown L.A., and choosing to stop at Rell's house for no reason other than "the movie needed it to happen." But its best moments are the ones with hints of truth to them — conversations between Key & Peele, their interactions with the gang members as they try to get the kitten back, etc. — so it's unfortunate that as the film heads into its third act, it devolves into a crazy action climax in which serious injuries seemingly don't have any impact and even the notion of realism is hurled out the window.

Despite these drawbacks, the charisma of the leading men still makes the movie worth watching. Key is a jangling bundle of nerves here, and he has this wonderful ability to seem as if he's surprising himself with every gangster-ish line that comes out of his mouth. Peele is more of the straight man this time around, always on the verge of being overwhelmed but determined to rescue Keanu at any cost. The two are endlessly watchable, and even though the movie sags in the middle during a drug deal scene, their high-energy antics outweigh most of the film's flaws. Plus, that adorable kitten is a major scene-stealer.

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