- KITTY LOVE: Jordan Peele (left) and Keegan-Michael Key hit the big screen in "Keanu."
The sketch-comedy breakouts from Comedy Central of the past five years have blessedly come from the nonwhite male persuasion, and good on them. The fastest-rising, Amy Schumer, practiced a sort of scorched-earth feminism that nailed a certain zeitgeist in the everyone's-a-little-bit-sexist 2010s. For that, she got a feature film last year, "Trainwreck," that felt dimmer and flabbier than her best sketch work, even if it did trump 90 percent of "Saturday Night Live" movie spin-offs.
Then there is the pair behind "Key & Peele," Keegan-Michael Key (the tall one) and Jordan Peele (the stocky one). Though not exclusively about race, the best "Key & Peele" sketches were often about race, and subversively so. (Think back to the post-apocalyptic alien invasion in which they could only tell human from replicant by asking white businessmen questions like, "Would you let me date your daughter?")
They've got their own feature out now: "Keanu," a good-hearted romp about pursuing a kitten through a violent gangster underworld, with shades of "John Wick." The good news is, it feels like a series of "Key & Peele" sketches quilted into 98 minutes of stoner gags and slo-mo gun battles. And with that, you already know the bad news. Key and Peele are more accustomed to making a single note or character last for three minutes, maybe four. Whether you think "Keanu" is a mini-classic or just a solid comedy will depend on how charming you find the inevitable saggy stretches and the repetition. But, ultimately, "Keanu" represents a strong leap to longform from the sketch team.
Peele, who also co-wrote the screenplay with "Key & Peele" collaborator Alex Rubens, plays a lay-about pothead creative named Rell, whose girlfriend, we learn early, has just broken up with him. At that bleak moment, there comes a scratch at the door, and a little tabby kitten (the lone survivor of a gangland massacre moments earlier) mewls up at him. Rell names him Keanu — "I think it means 'cool breeze' in Hawaiian" — and like that imprints on him as a therapy pet. A few short weeks later, he's shooting a calendar of Keanu re-enacting famous movie scenes (adorably chopping through a door for "The Shining," e.g.) and is treating him like a son.
Meanwhile, Key's character is a husband and father so square that his name is Clarence, a real paint-by-numbers sort who gets the weekend to hang when the family goes out of town. The buddies see a Liam "Neesons" flick (inside joke from the show) and return to find Rell's house broken into and the cat missing. Rell's pot-dealer neighbor (Will Forte) tips them to a gang called the Blips who might have the kitty, so the two regular joes barge into the strip club lair of the gang without so much as a costume change and pretend to be a couple of icy assassins in disguise, to blend in and try to get Keanu back. Elsewhere, those two actual assassins, also smitten with Keanu (and also played by Key and Peele), are stalking Rell and Clarence for the cat.
What you get is a clever bit of code switching and playing against type, as two regular guys have to adopt the manners of the street. Clarence, a corporate team-building type, falls into his role as an organizer and facilitator who talks a vanload of gangsters into getting onboard with his George Michael fandom. Rell can drop his voice a couple of octaves and pretend to be good at wasting dudes but he's really there to talk his kitty back from gangster-kingpin Method Man. This sort of thing was the premise for dozens of Key and Peele's bits (they're inveterate chameleons), and even if "Keanu" plays like a sketch that ran a bit long, it also includes a drug trip with George Michael's jeans and the film's namesake making an uncredited cameo as the cat's voice. Now bring on their next one.