Suddenly, with the help of Keanu (the name of the cat), Rell finds some motivation in life. He picks up his camera again (he's a budding photographer/filmmaker) and begins to create a cat calendar imitating famous films. Feeling good about himself, Rell goes out for a night with his cousin, Clarence (Keegan-Michael Key), who is dealing with identity issues of his own. After a fun series of Liam Neesons jokes, the two friends head back to Rell's place. But something seems strange. Rell's door is open, and when they enter his home, Keanu is gone. Devastated, Rell slips into a deep depression, before becoming more determined than ever to get his prized cat back. But to save Keanu, Rell and Clarence will have to infiltrate one of the most powerful gangs in the city and fight their way to success.
In an odd way, Keanu feels like a movie that is both nostalgically retro and strangely of the moment. It's a film that feels like a throwback to the 80's heyday of action/comedy, where movies like Beverly Hills Cop thrived. The influence of classic action cinema hangs over every scene of Keanu, highlighted by the presence of Heat and New Jack City posters in Rell's apartment and the general tone that the movie strikes. It's no secret that the plot of this movie was inspired by Keanu Reeves' John Wick, which gives Keanu a smart and sly parody element that feels fresh. Part of the reason I loved this film so much was because it was abundantly clear that the people who made it also love movies, and that passion bleeds through every frame.
At the same time, Keanu is very much in the wheelhouse of the climate of modern comedies. Key and Peele started as TV stars and internet sensations, brought to fame with viral videos like "East/West Bowl" and "Substitute Teacher." Their videos have racked up hundreds of millions of views and in many ways, Keanu just feels like an extended edition of what they're good at. Some have seen that as a negative, but I felt like it helped the film in every way. Key and Peele are experts at melding absurd plot mechanics with witty pop culture references and social satire, and in its best moments, Keanu is the perfect amalgamation of all three. Modern raunchy comedies have gotten stuck in the Apatow style for the last several years, but we're finally seeing the rise of screwball, high-concept stuff that works as a reflection of our culture.
But most importantly, Key and Peele are incredibly talented, funny comedians. When they're on fire, very few people can top them. For much of Keanu, the duo is at the top of their game, working with a tremendous script by Peele and Alex Rubens to create some truly hilarious material. Rell and Clarence are both likable characters, and the film's mix of classic fish-out-of-water storytelling and gangland satire produces some fantastic moments for the two funnymen. Key and Peele dominate this film, but the supporting cast has opportunities to shine as well. Tiffany Haddish is pretty terrific as Hi-C, the simultaneously sweet and brutal right-hand woman of gang leader Cheddar (played with humor and energy by Method Man). The rest of the crew is rounded out well by Jason Mitchell, Jamar Malachi Neighbors, and Darrell Britt-Gibson, while Will Forte has some great bits as Hulka.
Peter Atencio's direction is smart and zippy, relatively conventional while moving efficiently through the action. He never brings a lot of flash to the film, but he's able to strike the right tone and effectively craft the feel that the movie strives for. While Atencio brings some undeniable stability and skill to this movie, it's the script that really holds this thing together and elevates it to new heights. Beyond the fact that it's consistently hysterical, the screenplay allows the movie to play in other sandboxes. Key and Peele have always had a talent for injecting racial undertones into their comedy sketches, and in Keanu, it's no different. In fact, the contrast between urban and suburban values factors in heavily into the plot, producing some of the movie's finest moments. It's further proof that Key and Peele are comedians that are able to tap into the zeitgeist, blending the comedy and action we all crave with an innovative dissection of racial politics and our American culture.
In a modern Hollywood where the R-rated comedies often feel safe and uninspired, Keanu comes out blazing. While the film does lose itself in a few too many plot twists towards the end, the laughs keep coming and the charm is indisputable. Keanu isn't making big money at the box office, but without a doubt in my mind, this is the birth of a promising film career for one of the funniest comedic duos in recent years. Really, there's something here for everybody- cute cats, bloody action, raucous comedy, the list goes on. So what's not to like? A clever, ingenious riff on the action genre, Keanu is one of the best surprises of the year so far.
THE FINAL GRADE: A- (8.5/10)