Keanu begins with the aforementioned shoot-out, which introduces the kitten as an L.A. drug lord’s pet who seems to long for a simpler life. How else to explain Keanu’s mad bolt for freedom at the beginning of the movie into a gentler suburb, where he runs into Rell (Peele), a nerdy stoner recovering from a break-up. The two hit it off, but the film unfortunately fast-forwards through their bonding to the moment of Keanu’s kidnapping by a rival gang, which draws Rell and his straight-laced pal Clarence (Key) into an intricate web of mistaken identities and cartoonish violence. Keanu is that obscure object of desire, hunted by the cartel he escaped, prized by Cheddar (Method Man), the gangster who kidnapped him, and pursued by two anonymous assassins (also played by Key and Peele) who get drawn into the comedy of errors. It’s implied (but never explained) that the cat’s primary value to everyone involved is its cuteness—a hilariously simple and effective device that allows Rell and Clarence to infiltrate a world they don’t understand.
Rell and Clarence bear some physical similarity to the two assassins cutting a bloody swathe through town, which is enough to grant them entry to Cheddar’s gang. With that, the genre spoofery begins—Keanu is a light-hearted parody of a slew of L.A. gang movies like New Jack City and Boyz n the Hood while incorporating Key and Peele’s own brand of subversion. Clarence, a happily married business consultant who blares George Michael in his Honda minivan, taps into some buried font of stereotypical masculine posturing and is exhilarated. The film’s best side-plot, which could have done with more exploration, sees him gleefully teaching Cheddar’s gang about team-building skills and delighting in their improvements during a climactic shootout (“They’re communicating!” he yelps with glee).
Rell is exposed to the nastier side of gang life as he tries to win the respect of Cheddar’s lieutenant Hi-C (Tiffany Haddish), which is where the film tends to drag. Haddish, a comedian who also appears on NBC’s brilliant Carmichael Show, is Keanu’s most luminous human star, but she’s too often pushed into a dull enforcer mode as things get darker and more violent and Rell and Clarence struggle to keep up. The mistaken-identity trope gets old quickly—Key and Peele’s “gangster” personae are worth some laughs in the first 20 minutes of the film, but are too flimsy to drive Keanu’s overly complex plot. After an hour, it’s hard to believe that anyone would buy these guys as hardened assassins, even in such a heightened comedy.
Keanu’s core premise is a sharp one: that even though the gangster façades Clarence and Rell slip into are silly and reductive, there’s something appealing in their simplicity and in the bloody mayhem that ensues. Anytime viewers are enjoying the film’s high-octane action excess (competently directed by Key and Peele’s TV collaborator Peter Atencio), then the joke is on them. When Keanu seems like it’s pandering to the lowest common denominator, one recalls a spate of purportedly serious action dramas that do the same with zero self-awareness. The joke wears out sooner than it should, but the stars of Keanu (including, yes, that terrific cat) do a decent job distracting from that.