SXSW 2016: Keegan-Michael Key & Jordan Peele’s Keanu Brings Down the House
If fans had it their way, Key & Peele would have probably never ended. Yet when it did, after five seasons, all you could do was applaud; here were two guys going out on top after creating one of the best comedy sketch shows of all time. Before their feature film debut, Keanu, played here as a work-in-progress, a great documentary called Thank you Del: The Story of the Del Close Marathon had premiered, and seeing Keanu after it felt fitting. The doc, directed by Todd Bieber, is about the titular comedy legend who essentially elevated the long form sketch routine into an art form, and, with it, the careers of some of the greatest comedians alive (we're looking at you, Amy Poehler). So as we sat waiting for Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele's Keanu to star, one could be excused for imagining Del Close sitting right there beside you, grinning; here was a feature-length version of a long form sketch by two of the best in the business. By the time Key and Peele had emptied a duffel bag of stuffed animals (kittens, of course) by throwing them out to the adoring crowd at the Paramount Theater here in Austin (a crowd that was more than happy to see the film at 12:30 am, knowing that the day light saving's time switch would make it roughly 3:00am by the time we all got out), everyone was keyed up (apologies), even though neither Key or Peele had the arm strength to get a kitten into the balcony. They can't be good at everything, right?
So, Keanu. Fans of Key & Peele, George Michael (specifically his song "Faith"), kittens, code switching (a linguistic term 99% of the population had never heard of until Key and Peele made it a hallmark of their show), John Wick, John Wick-style action spoofs, long, slow-motion shots of kittens running through a hail of gunfire, and Method Man finally have the film they've been waiting for. Longtime Key & Peele director Peter Atencio helmed their first feature debut with his usual visual aplomb, and so Keanu, the story of a beloved kitten (to several people, initially a pair of terrifying killers from Allentown, played by, you guessed it, Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key) really looks like the action films it spoofs. The story revolves around the titular kitten, who ends up at the doorstep of Rell's (Peele)man's apartment, immediatel pulling him out of a girlfriend-inspired funk (he'd been recently dumped), only to be stolen by some local gangsters (which mimics the plot device that gets John Wick back in the game; someone killed his puppy), forcing Rell, with the help of his meek cousin, Clarence (Key), to impersonate gangsters so they can rescue the kitten. For fans of Key & Peele, this film will delight you. For people who have never seen Key & Peele, this film very well might make you binge watch all five seasons. It really does feel like one long, insane sketch, one performed by two comedians (who can really act) at the top of their games, giving their fans a kind of valedictory performance. Del Close would have likely applauded and howled with the rest of the Paramount Theater crowd.
With the game afoot, Rell and Clarence end up at a strip club (we won't give you the name of said club, as it's a joke work savoring) run by a serious drug and death dealer by the name of Cheddar (Method Man, his name a funny riff on his role in The Wire, where he played Cheese), whose has stolen Keanu and re-named him New Jack. Just watching Rell and Clarence pretend to be "hard" in front of Cheddar and his assorted gang is worth the price of admission, their gangster posturing familiar to Key & Peele fans yet still really, really funny. They end up pretending to be those Allentown assassins we saw in the film's ridiculous, hilarious opening, and end up agreeing to a clearly insane deal; if they help out Cheddar and his crew on a huge drug deal, he'll return New Jack/Keanu.
At this point, the film takes several shocking, dark turns, including a scene of drug-fueled violence that reminded me of that great, terrifying extended scene in Boogie Nights when Alfred Molina's coked-up, gun-toting lunatic found out he was being duped, only here, the cameo (we won't reveal this person's identity) is more funny than scary, yet the resulting mayhem still manages to surprise you. It's during this scene that George Michael becomes a huge plot point, too, and it's here you get to watch Key and Peele at their best. The former is in the car with three of Cheddar's crew, extolling the virtues of Michael's "Faith," while the latter is in the mansion trying to execute the drug deal with a seriously deranged buyer—both are essentially riffing to save their own lives. They're succeeding.
There are enough laughs to carry any viewer through this somewhat modest debut—modest not in scope or scale (the action is more or less relentless), but, perhaps, in narrative possibility. Key and Peele can just about do anything, and as funny as Keanu is, the plot requires only a portion of their immense skill; they need to bluff their way into getting Keanu back, pretending to be something they're not until the last, violent screw can turn and the two can be reunited with a kitten who, really, might be more trouble than he's worth. Keanu is very funny, mainly beacuse Key and Peel are very, very funny. Whatever their next project together is, my guess is it'll be bigger and more complex, giving these two the room to show just how much they can really do.