Film

With ‘Keanu,’ Key and Peele Save the Cat — and Maybe Buddy Action Comedies, Too

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It’s easy to think, based on the marketing, that the first feature film from acclaimed comedy duo Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele will be a hundred minutes of an adorable kitten dressed in a do-rag and gold chain for easy laughs, but Keanu is so so much more than that. And also not.

Through every minute of Keanu, it’s evident we’re watching a movie made by people who love movies. They know all the clichés of action films and rom-coms, but they also circumvent them. It’s like they read Blake Snyder’s Hollywood screenwriting bible Save the Cat! — which advises you to give audiences what they want and, among other things, literally save the cat if there’s one in peril in your story — and then made an entire movie around the cat. The feline’s name is even a wink at the film’s parodic source material: Keanu Reeves’ electric murdered-pet revenge flick John Wick.

In the very first scene, we get our trailer-promised slow-motion shots of a kitten soon to be named Keanu dashing through total carnage as two goons who look like the Crow meets Blade shoot up a drug den, employing Matrix-level moves to flip upside down while firing guns. The goons — or the “Allentown boys” (also played by a heavily made-up Key and Peele) — obviously fall in love with the wide-eyed kitten, who melts their hearts until the police burst in and ruin the fun. From there, the kitten traverses the city to end up on the doorstep of Rell (Peele).

And so begins our story of a cat who steals hearts and leads humans into terrible situations to save him. We could really stop right there, and it would be funny enough, but to their credit Key and Peele never settle for just the easy joke. The duo has honed a beautiful comic partnership over the course of its Comedy Central series, a kind of odd-couple friendship that feels more influenced by Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder than any contemporary performers. Both are biracial, and this status informs how their characters deal with race and class, like when Rell bumps N.W.A.’s “Fuck tha Police” in his cousin Clarence’s (Key) minivan and a cop pulls up, prompting Rell to turn down the music, smile, and wave. The cops drive off, and Rell fronts, “Roll on, po-po,” a ridiculous statement that Clarence does not let go. Their characters constantly bounce their racial and gender insecurities at each other. Are they black enough? Are they manly enough?

When they end up at the strip-club HQ of the Blips (the gang that took over for the Bloods and Crips) to find their stolen cat, they’re in the lion’s den of what they fear they’re not: the “blackest” and most manly of men. These are guys — and one woman, Hi-C (Tiffany Haddish) — who use the N-word like it’s a conjunction, and nothing could make Rell and Clarence more uncomfortable. Watching the heroes squirm while strippers gyrate on the poles is absolutely joyous, because for once we get to see two guys onscreen who are actually, genuinely conflicted about their roles as men in this scenario. It only gets more cringe-comic when the two are mistaken for those Allentown toughs and have to role-play as cold-blooded assassins to infiltrate the Blips and rescue Keanu from their leader, “Cheddar” (Method Man).

One of the funniest moments comes from a long scene with Anna Faris playing a drug-addicted, samurai sword–wielding version of herself. Rell has to sell her a new super-drug and endure her psychopathic rantings to see a man die. Meanwhile, Clarence, oblivious, hangs out in Faris’ driveway in his minivan with the rest of the Blips — Trunk, Stitches, and Bud — teaching them of the glory of George Michael until they all break out in song, proclaiming their love for their new “father figure.”

Key and Peele somehow infuse an emotional reality into this scene and others, despite how absurd the premise sounds. In Hollywood movies, a hapless hero forced into a situation where he has to kill someone would just do it, and we’d never think twice about the body count. But Clarence and Rell react like regular humans do: scared as shit. Key and Peele never resort to turning their characters into despicable people for a laugh. Maybe I sound like an old woman even thinking this, but it’s damn refreshing to see nice characters in an American comedy again.

That brings us to the mind-bogglingly adorable feline. Whoever trained the eight cats that collectively play Keanu deserves an Academy Award. Sure, anyone can film a cat, and America will love it, but director Peter Atencio elevates cat videos to an art form with gorgeous slow-motion tracking shots surrounded by explosions that would make Michael Bay proud. Key and Peele have a special kind of magic they’ve brought to their first feature, but it’s also a crazy-simple formula: Keep saving that damn cat.