By the time “Keanu” premiered at the SXSW Film Festival, its red band trailer had generated well over two million views on YouTube for good reason: It’s basically an expensively-produced cat video. In under three minutes, the boisterous snippets from comedy duo Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele’s first starring vehicle delivered the hilarious essence of their high concept action-comedy: Stoner movie geek Rell (Peele) overcomes a recent breakup with the discovery of an adorable kitten at his doorstep, which is abruptly stolen by a local gang. With his buttoned-up cousin Clarence (Key) by his side, Rell ventures into an arena of bullets and car chases in an absurdly reckless attempt to recover his feline companion. And…scene!
Pairing dramatic imagery with an adorable MacGuffin and two faces known for their goofy TV routine, the trailer could almost have functioned as a tossed-off bit on the duo’s now-defunct Comedy Central Show “Key & Peele.” The very existence of an entire movie made on studio dime represents some kind of subversive victory, but it’s not a complete triumph. Tinged with the same playful upending of racial stereotypes found in “Key & Peele” along with the zaniest use of shootouts and explosions this side of “Pineapple Express,” the trailer for “Keanu” not only epitomizes the movie’s appeal; it highlights the parts that work.
Like a greatest hits compilation that runs out of steam, this jovial buddy comedy formula (co-written by its stars) returns to variations of the same punchlines again and again. Wildly entertaining in parts, “Keanu” overstays its welcome and just keeps going, showing the growing pains of sketch comedy drawn out to epic proportions.
Fortunately, as far as that formula goes, the “Key & Peele” team comes equipped with a built-in chemistry and keen satiric focus. While gentler than “The Chappelle Show,” the duo’s gags about black identity in America involve an amusing contrast with their own distance from it. The funniest bit in the “Keanu” trailer finds the two men venturing to a seedy strip club on the path of their missing kitty, and realizing that they need to adopt “urban” mannerisms to blend in. (“You sound like Richard Pryor doing an impression of a white guy,” Rell tells Clarence.) That ends up setting the stage for the main twist, as Rell and Clarence face down drug lord Chedder (Method Man) disguised as a pair of local hit man and agree to accompany his minions on a delivery in order to get the cat back.
From the exaggerated gangster nicknames the duo dream up for themselves (“Techtonic” and “Shark Tank”) to the name of the gang itself (The Blips, because they’re dropouts from the Bloods and the Crips), “Keanu” offers plenty of imaginative ways to mess around with the hollow signposts of black identity in mainstream storytelling. Directed by “Key & Peele” regular Peter Atencio at a fast clip with the polished feel of a genuine Michael Bay-level blockbuster, the movie also provides a genuinely fun black action buddy comedy just two months after “Ride Along 2” defined the market standard.
Whenever it starts to drag, “Keanu” delivers another satisfying bit to remind viewers of the talent in play. There may be no better recent example of cultural disconnect than the scene in which Clarence talks a carful of gun-toting criminals to appreciate the melodies of George Michael.
Of course, the best parts of “Keanu” have less to do with edgy satire than pure outrageousness, particularly when it comes to the title character. Rell’s obsession over his new little buddy, whom he photographs at home in a series of classic movie scenes (“The Shining” is a highlight) reflects the duo’s commitment to making the right jokes stick. However, while it never vaults off into the gleefully wacky heights of the “Harold & Kumar” franchise, it similarly turns a pair of minority characters into 21st century slapstick heroes. Spiced up with one fantastic cameo from a comedic actress who doesn’t do enough these days, “Keanu” reads like a plea for more diverse dumb comedies. (Take that, #OscarsSoWhite.)
But “Keanu” never fully reconciles the comedy with the action, so that as the final act fills up with shootings and explosions, there’s no discernible punchline aside from their very existence here. On a certain level, “Keanu” mainly exists to celebrate Hollywood’s latest hope for renewing old formulas (they’re already attached to produce a reboot of “Police Academy”). While that kind of filmmaking could use some fresh blood, it’s a challenge that falls beneath these savvy comedic artists. Rather than delivering much in the way of cutting-edge satire, “Keanu” is just as stupid as it looks.
“Keanu” premiered at the 2016 SXSW Film Festival. It opens nationwide on April 29.