Key and Peele is one of the best US comedy shows of recent years, managing skits both grounded and absurd with consistent hilarity. A move into feature films was obviously going to be a difficult transition from sketch comedy. Questions were raised about whether Key and Peele could manage a full-length story, and whether their brilliance with one-off performances could translate into 100+ minutes of satisfying character building and development. What no one could have really expected, and what makes Keanu such a crushing disappointment, is that Key and Peele’s essential funniness would be lost in translation between the small and big screens.
After a jolly first 15 minutes, Keanu’s joke well really dries up, and the dramatic stakes that attempt to replace the gags don’t do nearly enough to make up for the absence of solid laughs. Telling the story of Clarence (Keegan-Michael Key) and Rell (Jordan Peele), two middle class black men who have to pretend to be gangsters to get back Rell’s stolen cat (the eponymous Keanu), the film takes what is one of the funniest lines of K+P comedy (silly gangster sketches) and manages to waste the potential. Barring a very good running gag revolving around the music of George Michael, Keanu is pretty much a standard fish out of water caper with guns, that has been done far, far better by the recent Jump Street movies.
Infiltrating the cat-grapping gang the Blips, led by Cheddar (Method Man) and Hi-C (Tiffany Hadish), proves surprisingly easy for Clarence and Rell, who rename themselves Shark Tank and Tectonic. One of the most interesting parts of the whole film comes through Clarence’s unabashed enjoyment of being a gangster. Initially very reluctant to enter the Blips’ bar, he ends up relishing the chance to completely abandon his meek, middle-class persona, and this detail does help keep things fresh as things spiral further and further out of control.
Unfortunately, the escalation of events in Keanu really stretches plausibility, even in the slightly fantastical Key and Peele universe. The final third, in particular, is utterly ridiculous, and whilst Peter Atencio proves himself a competent action director, the all too frequent shootout scenes are completely at odds with the tone of the rest of the film, and make the stretches between jokes unforgivably long. Key and Peele themselves make the lead roles entertaining enough, and the crew they start riding with (including Straight Outta Compton’s Jason Mitchell) are a pretty fun ragtag group. You just wish the script had given them all more to do.
Even a cameo by the cat’s namesake Keanu Reeves can’t do much to liven up the latter parts of the film, which takes the action too seriously to really be a spoof, but doesn’t have the emotional weight or the budget to function as an actual guns and gangsters tale. As feared, Keanu does feel entirely like a 5 minute sketch stretched out into a movie, and if it weren’t for the powerful influence of George Michael, there would sadly be very little to recommend about it.