Director: Peter Atencio
Cast: Jordan Peele, Keegan Michael-Kay, Tiffany Haddish, Method Man
Plot: A recently dumped man (Peele) finds solace in an adorable kitten, only for that kitten to be catnapped by some drug-dealers.
At first glance, Keanu’s plot earns a chuckle, perhaps a cooing sound at the sight of cinema’s most adorable cat, but little else. The film’s main joke is that every fight, stunt and death caused in this film is all down to a single baby cat, who melts the hearts of anyone that looks at him. You expect a film that fuels its first few scenes off this gag (the movie opens with a well choreographed bloody shoot-out, the kitten hopping around a room narrowly avoiding bullets), but quickly dies at the lack of any follow-up humour. Thankfully, this turns out not to be the case.
Some context first. Keanu is written by Jordan Peele and Keegan Michael-Kay, most commonly known for their sketch show over in the States, Key and Peele. Their humour is often on-point and satirical, no topic safe from their mocking. As a Brit, a country whose culture is built upon great sketch shows (The Two Ronnies, Harry and Enfield), I really appreciate their humour, especially as they tend to rely on smarts rather than visuals. Keanu marks their first attempt at a feature film (Peele went on to direct 2017’s horror Get Out, although its lack of comedy makes it a separate entity altogether from the sketch show). This has varying degrees of success for comedians out there, most of these projects hidden gems for the fans, but average affairs for the modern cinema-goer. A lot of the time they come across as low-budget excuses to tease chuckles occasionally from the audience. Money is usually the main motivator. However, with Key and Peele’s transition to the big screen, it feels more of a chance to prove themselves to a wider audience. My knowledge of Key and Peele came from researching them, before heading onto this film, meaning that, if they count a single pale-faced British blogger as a success, their goal has been realised. The best thing about Keanu is that their humour stops it from straying off the beaten path. It would have been easy for a fledging feature film company to run with the kitten joke as detailed above, but Key and Peele make Keanu about so much more than a cute cat. Keanu is pretty much a Macguffin, albeit one that earns squeals of delight at the very sight of it, that puts the plot in motion, giving the comedians reason to dive into their sharp wit. The more principal joke is that as soon as these two average middle-class guys, both actors using their charisma to portray to undeniably nice guys, decide to infiltrate a drug ring to get back their kitten, they suddenly have to embrace black stereotypes to get undercover. It’s a smart choice of jokes, racism obviously a huge part of their drive (Get Out also centred around the fear of racism), because while it is also hilarious, watching Keegan Michael-Kay awkwardly speak gangsta around some cold-blooded killers, the subtext also screams how ridiculous these stereotypes are. They look utterly foolish, which adds to the idea that not all black people are going to fit into the boxes that stereotypes have created. Once again, the pair of them prove that comedy and intelligence can walk hand in hand.
But outside of the political context, Keanu is simply put, very funny. Most of that is down to the lead actors being able to rely on themselves as well as the writing. It is the secret weapon that these sketch show writers have with Keanu that it would be nice if more comedy utilised. Being the leads from the moment they sat down with a piece of paper to write the film, they knew exactly what jokes they could bring to the table. Other films have no idea what charisma they could be working with. An Adam Sandler comedy might not necessarily be written with Adam Sandler in mind, so they cannot account for the little quirks he can bring to the final draft at the early stages of pre-production. As a result, comedies are often filled with gross-out, vulgar set-pieces that are generally funny to the mainstream. They play it safe. However, with Key and Peele, there is a great sense that they knew that they had the talent to write some jokes purposefully small, keep them small and they would be just as funny as the big laughs. For example, a lot of the jokes revolve around this idea that they are trapped in a situation where death happens easily, so they are emotionally breaking down through the course of the movie. Of course, they are undercover, so they have to stomach the violence and emote internally. These scenes are amazingly hilarious. It is impossible to explain how they are funny, because it is stems from the little reactions and ad-libbed quotes from Key and Peele, rather than anything scripted. And that is why it is funny. Because only they can come out with that particular joke at that particular time. There is of course some amazing louder gags that stems from Keanu. George Michael fans will adore this movie for the amount of times the late singer is pulled out for some gags. Light spoiler: he eventually becomes a cult symbol for the black community, climaxing in a great hallucination scene. There is also a great cameo appearance from a comedy actress, who plays an over-the-top version of herself, a team-building exercise running joke that accumulates into a shoot-out and a car chase carried out by someone who can’t drive. And all the while that kitten sits at the forefront of the movie, dazzling us with his cuteness. Move over, Keanu Reeves. There’s a new Keanu in town.
Final Verdict: Keanu is worth watching, simply because it is far better than you expect it to be. Funny, smart and avoids the expected pitfalls.