I’ll say this for Keanu: The cat is cute. If it weren’t, the whole endeavor would have fallen apart in the opening scene, where an underground drug operation is raided by two merciless gangsters, and an adorable tabby kitten, the titular hero, pops its head out of a pile of dollar bills and makes a break for freedom. Keanu is the first feature film starring the comedy duo Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, who electrified the sketch-comedy genre with their show Key & Peele. While they certainly lend to the movie’s overall charm, the whole violent, loony caper wouldn’t make a bit of sense—nor would it be nearly as delightful—without the darn cat.
Perhaps in an homage to the mercurial Hollywood icon it’s named after, Keanu is a zany comic take on the Keanu Reeves-starring John Wick, only this time, all the gangsters are doing battle over a kitten instead of a photogenic beagle. It’s also a take on the phenomenon of “code switching,” digging into Hollywood’s one-dimensional take on African American masculinity with occasional sharpness as two nerdy protagonists are drawn into a world of gun-toting and drug-dealing stereotypes, and struggle to blend in. It has all the hallmarks of a classic Key & Peele sketch, which in the end is its undoing; even with a 98-minute running time, the premise just can’t sustain a madcap full-length effort. But the charm of its stars—and their furry on-screen partner—is enough to at least keep things entertaining as the film delivers a sharp spoof of Hollywood’s often empty-headed blockbuster tendencies.
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.