A film review by Craig J. Koban May 13, 2016


2016, R, 94 mins.


Keegan Michael Key as Clarence  /  Jordan Peele as Rell  /  Method Man as Cheddar  /  Will Forte as Hulka  /  Tiffany Haddish as Hi-C  /  Nia Long as Hannah  /  Jason Mitchell as Bud  /  Luis Guzmán as Bacon  /  Rob Huebel as Spencer

Directed by Peter Atencio  /  Written by Alex Rubens and Jordan Peele

I’m a self-obsessed cat lover.  Anything feline related seems to instantly melt my heart.  It’s my emotional kryptonite.  

The new action comedy KEANU (not to be directly confused with the famous actor whose first name means “cool breeze” in Hawaiian) features one of the most cripplingly adorable kittens in movie history that just happens to be the main focal point of the feature film starring debut of Jordan Peele and Keegan Michael Key (known collectively as Key and Peele). They, of course, are well known for their sketch comedy series on Comedy Central, which skewers and parodies just about everything in pop and social culture.  KEANU displays their considerable comedic timing and rapport and demonstrates that they have awfully big careers ahead of them on-screen.  They also show remarkable shrewdness in having the co-star in their first film be an equally charismatic cat.  

Peele plays loveable sadsack Rell, who just recently lost his girlfriend and has hit absolute rock bottom.  His BFF/cousin in Clarence (Key) shows tremendous concern over Rell’s wellbeing, despite secretly being elated that he’s no longer with the woman.  Just when things look at their grimmest, an excruciatingly cute stray kitten shows up at his door, and Rell is in a state of jubilation.  Not only is he instantly in love with his new little friend, but it also re-energizes his artistic impulses (in some of the film’s funnier moments, he puts the cat in photos featuring meticulous miniature recreations of famous movie scenes, with THE SHINNING being hysterically spot-on).  Rell dubs the cat Keanu and an instant bromance is born; hell, even Clarence can’t get over the intoxicating allure of this fur ball.  Rather happily, Rell’s life and attitude seems to be taking a rosy and optimistic turn for the better. 



Now, what Rell doesn’t know is that Keanu was unfortunately the property of a ruthless gang leader that managed to escape a particularly chaotic and violent shootout.  Things go south for Rell and Clarence really fast when the former returns home one night to discover that his apartment has been ransacked and that – dear God, NOOOOOOOO!!! – Keanu has apparently been abducted.  Getting some vital information from their drug dealing neighbor Huka (Will Forte), Rell and Clarence find themselves journeying into the roughest area of LA to confront a drug kingpin known as “Cheddar” (Method Man), who now has Keanu and claims that he is his rightful owner.  Seeing that Rell and, more obviously, Clarence are not cut from the gangsta cloth at all, the two bumbling fools in way over their heads realize that they will have to pretend to be notorious boyz-in-the-hood inspired criminals (they hysterically dub themselves Tectonic and Shark Tank on the spot) in order to get into Cheddar’s inner circle and find a manner of getting Keanu back.  The severity of their powder keg of a situation gets severe when Cheddar demands that the pair go on a potentially dangerous drug deal run to prove their worth, the prize for success being, yes, Keanu’s ownership. 

KEANU is a stupendously absurd film that fully embraces its sheer and unbridled lunacy.  Clearly, the film could have been a lazily executed one-joke affair, but since it features the infectiously entertaining pairing of Key and Peele – both showcasing what spirited and completely willing-to-do-anything on-screen funnymen they are – they help KEANU achieve a wonderfully loose and kinetic sense of forward momentum.  They play their respective roles with the right amusing balance of haplessness and stupid thrown-caution-to-the-wind courage.  Clarence in particular is a droll delight, a man that has essentially been emasculated by marriage (and life in general) that is too dimwittedly naďve to notice, for example, that his wife takes off for the weekend with a fellow friend that has a highly convenient explanation as to why he’s not bringing his own wife on the getaway.  Rell, on the other hand, is frequently funny because of his zealot-like determination to get his cat back.  The film has perverse pleasure in exploring the fanatical extremes that pet owners go to as protectors of their beloved animals...and Rell cranks it up to 11.  Like, seriously. 

Beyond its bonkers premise, KEANU scores huge and well-earned laughs at the way it mocks domesticated and gangland African American culture.  The whole side-splitting undercurrent of the story is how Clarence and Rell – two awfully warm hearted and well meaning nice guys with proverbial hearts of gold – have to immediately course correct their personalities and become menacing black stereotypes to help sell the false fact that there are gun wielding, murder-happy, and savagely unhinged criminal nutjobs…and all to retrieve…a cat.  Yes, KEANU is a crazy farce, but it does have legitimate things to say about black masculinity and what it means for these men to feel and be considered “cool.”  In one of the film’s most hilarious scenes (occurring during the aforementioned drug deal trip), some of Cheddar’s minions (who have tagged along with Rell and Clarence) discover that Clarence’s iPod has a heavy predilection towards the music of George Michael.  Realizing that this could blow his cover, Clarence miraculously convinces his hardened colleagues on the virtues and darker underbelly of Michael’s songs.  Within no time, he has converted these hoodlums into full on George Michael fanboys that begin humming the musician’s lyrics in unison at the drop of a hat. 

The whole journey of Rell and Clarence from suburbanites to crooks with street cred always bares successful fruit in the film in the manner it sarcastically and affectionately pokes fun at race and inter-cultural relations.  KEANU also works as a fairly inspired action film with many elaborately constructed set pieces that are as well crafted and constructed as any other mainstream genre effort.  The opening scene of the film – featuring two twin assassins (played by Key and Peele themselves) shooting up a church-based lair of a rival drug gang (which also happens to be the initial home of Keanu) is wonderfully shot and makes strong usage of slow-motion and stunt choreography (some of these shots astoundingly put poor Keanu – and probably multiple stunt cats – into the fray, with sensational, albeit nerve wracking results.  It’s great to see an action comedy fully adopt and tie opposing genre elements together with equal focus and nerve.  You can really sense that Key and Peele went all out here with their debut film. 

KEANU, though, oddly feels long and protracted despite its relatively brief 96 minute running time.  For every narrative aside the film takes that works (especially one involving a fairly well known celebrity playing a rather nightmarish version of herself), there are many others that simply feel distracting.  There are also times when the overall premise – which, to be fair, is kind of flimsy despite how ludicrously enjoyable it is – strains to find a way to elongate itself out to feature film length (that, and there are far too many stretches in KEANU when its most attractive non-human star is nowhere to be found).  Still, for a debut effort, the film is an agreeable mishmash of hyper violence, buddy-comedy hijinks, and social commentary that amply displays the committed skills of the perpetually likeable Key and Peele, leaving me more than genuinely excited to see their next cinematic offering.  Granted, I highly doubt that their next comedy while have a drug induced dream featuring Key inhabiting the George Michael music video “Faith.”  That much is certain.  

And as for Keanu himself?  ERMAHGERD!!!  He's a megastar.

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