‘Keanu’ Review: Key and Peele and a Cute Kitten Make a Mostly Funny ‘John Wick’ Riff
Take the comedic talents of Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key, add an intensely adorable kitten, the musical stylings of George Michael, and a riff on John Wick, and you get Keanu — an action comedy that is mostly enjoyable, until it stretches its premise a little too thin and falls victim to the narrative demands of a feature-length film. Perhaps fittingly enough, Key and Peele’s first film outing is at its most lively when the titular kitten is on screen. Remove the kitten from the equation and you have a film that adheres a little too closely to the action flick formula it seeks to emulate, particularly during the lengthy third act.
There’s no denying that Key and Peele are incredibly talented comedians who have created some hilarious and highly memorable sketches, but transitioning from television to film presents a challenge the duo aren’t able to overcome as gracefully as you’d hope. The concept of Keanu would make for a brilliant sketch or bottle episode of Key & Peele, but stretched out over almost two hours, the gimmick wears thin early on, forcing the pair to rely on traditional and familiar movie tropes: A romantic interest, a climactic shoot-out, dramatic confrontations, and so on.
But when Keanu works, it really works, paying homage to the work of “Liam Neesons” (the duo’s famous sketch does indeed get a shout-out) and John Wick (it’s no coincidence the kitten is named after Reeves), though it indulges a little too much in the seriousness of the former and is predictably missing the elegant action of the latter. Painfully cute kitten aside, the best parts of Keanu involve Key and Peele exploring a perceived binary of black culture, with their dorky, earnest characters trying to infiltrate a gang in order to retrieve the stolen feline. The culture clash between the straight-laced pair and their street-tough counterparts yields some hilarious moments, both expected and not — gang members learning to appreciate the wisdom of George Michael never gets tired, and in return Key and Peele learn to loosen up and be more courageous. It’s a typical exchange of strengths between mismatched, reluctant partners, the familiarity of which is subverted by the utter likability of the two leads.
Smartly, the majority of what you’ve seen in the trailer happens within the first 20 minutes, leaving plenty of surprises, a couple of clever plot turns and at least one great cameo that has miraculously remained secret (no, it’s not Liam Neeson). But Keanu still feels front-loaded with an energetic first act that gives way to a fitfully funny second act before the film devolves into an unfortunately typical action-drama in the final act — saved only by the reappearance of Keanu and a well-timed drug sequence that might be the most impressively directed and edited portion of the film.
While Key and Peele are certainly the star attraction, the supporting cast is equally as magnetic, from Tiffany Haddish’s nuanced performance as sole female gang member Hi-C to Will Forte’s pot-dealing, cornrow-wearing hip-hop aficionado. A few minor characters become a little too minor, and Nia Long, Rob Huebel and Straight Outta Compton’s Jason Mitchell are a bit underutilized. A side plot involving Key’s wife (Long) and a fellow parent (Huebel) taking their respective kids on a weekend road trip offers some additional drama that feels ancillary and underdeveloped.
Ambitious and slightly bloated, Keanu is just barely able to sustain its cute premise beyond the first two acts — and that premise feels like an easy win with the endlessly amusing Key and Peele paired with a ridiculously adorable kitten named after one of the coolest actors of our time (you can fight me on this point, but you will lose) and riffing on one of the best action films in recent years (again, you can fight me on this, but you will lose). Unfortunately, the duo can’t seem to find a way around indulging in basic tropes to pad the narrative and extend the runtime. That said, Keanu is still a solid effort for Key and Peele’s first foray into feature-length comedy, and despite its inconsistent pacing and tone, it shouldn’t leave you feeling any less excited for their future projects.
Ultimately, two very likable comedians have made an undeniably likable film — one that falls short of being great, and never really aspires to anything substantial beyond its simple premise.