Television sketch shows — even those masterminded by formidable talents like Fry and Laurie or Mitchell and Webb — tend to leave me cold. They’re almost always inconsistent and require wading through a ton of flat and overextended gags to get to the good stuff. In my opinion, the exception to that rule was Comedy Central’s hilarious and deeply political Key & Peele, headlined by comedians Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, a show that almost never included a sketch that didn’t kill. Thankfully, its intelligence and watchability extends to Keanu, the duo’s first feature film as co-leads. Their chemistry survives the 90-minute runtime and the sociopolitical subtext present in the show—while blunted somewhat for a multiplex audience—still gets to bare its teeth on occasion.
Key and Peele play Clarence, an uptight business consultant, and Rell, a stoner slacker, who find themselves forced to engage with the Los Angeles underworld while searching for the titular kitten. Said adorable feline, in an endearingly fannish twist on 2014’s instant classic John Wick (starring Keanu Reeves, of course), had just dragged Clarence out of a depressive post-breakup funk and he’ll be damned if he’s going to give it up to the drug-dealing gangster named Cheddar (played by rapper/actor Method Man) who stole it.
Key and Peele play Clarence, an uptight business consultant, and Rell, a stoner slacker, who find themselves forced to engage with the Los Angeles underworld while searching for the titular kitten. Said adorable feline, in an endearingly fannish twist on 2014’s instant classic John Wick.
Most of the comedy is mined from the culture clash experienced by the nebbishy and stolidly middle-class cousins as they attempt to toughen up their act for the benefit of Cheddar and his crew. Taking advantage of their passing resemblance to a pair of murderous assassins (also played by Key and Peele), they call themselves “Shark Tank” and “Techtonic,” only to have all their fronting backfire on them when Cheddar asks them to train up his underlings in the ways of murder and drug dealing. The premise allows the leads to cleverly play up and riff off pop culture stereotypes of black masculinity. We laugh and cringe as the two (black) leads try to fit into “gang culture” by drawing upon the same handful of movies—New Jack City gets explicit mention—so much of the world gets its one-dimensional conception of black America from. The intent behind the film’s never-ending battle between the individuality of its lead characters and their need to conform to popular stereotypes is pointed. And yet, none of the politicking feels preachy. Some of the best gags are built off Rell and Clarence’s misguided attempts at “authenticity” and, later, the gangsters’ adoption of their bourgeois predilections. A scene in which Clarence convinces an SUV packed with hardened killers of the merits of post-Wham! George Michael and corporate team-building exercises is comedy gold. This may be a one-joke movie but it’s a hell of a joke.
Equally essential is the easy rapport between the headlining team. These two have been friends and collaborators for a long time and the 80s-style buddy-movie elements work beautifully for that reason. Films by sketch comedy teams aren’t necessarily known for their character work but Peele and Alex Rubens’ script gives that aspect some welcome attention before chaos descends. The friendship between the leads is thoughtfully essayed, with care taken to highlight the fact that the once-close cousins are growing apart due to the gap between their lifestyles, circumstances and levels of maturity. The film downshifts between some of its more frenetic gag sequences to touch upon their evolving relationship and is all the better for it.
This isn’t a perfect movie. There are a couple of unnecessarily protracted action scenes that remind you how much better John Wick is at that kind of thing. A romantic subplot feels shoehorned in despite Peele getting some good jokes out of it. And the kitten doesn’t get nearly enough scenes or little costumes. Ultimately though, for all the mainstream trappings, the film is saved by the fact that Key and Peele are just as subtle and subversive as ever. Even when they’re doing backflips in slow motion while shooting at drug dealers.