Keanu review: all meow but no bite

Kitten, more, please

Early in Keanu, the first feature film from the comedy duo of Key & Peele, Clarence Goobril (Keegan-Michael Key) and his cousin Rell Williams (Jordan Peele) walk into a strip club called HPV — that's Hot Party Vixens — on a quest to recover Rell's kidnapped kitten, Keanu.

Our mild-mannered heroes are out of their element in the club, which is full of black people whom the cousins find intimidating, and Rell decides to toughen up. When he points out Clarence's manner of speaking, Clarence doesn't understand what Rell is getting at.

"You sound like Richard Pryor doing an impression of a white guy!" Rell hisses. The cousins are accosted by some gangsters shortly afterward, and it's Clarence who immediately acts hard, letting the n-bombs fly fast and free.

This kind of role reversal and code-switching was the foundation of many skits on Key & Peele's eponymous sketch show. And Keanu gets a lot of mileage out of the contrasts between Rell and Clarence, often to hilarious effect. But while the film delivers plenty of laughs, it lacks the subversive bite of the duo's trademark social satire.

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Rell and Clarence are in very different places at the beginning of Keanu. Clarence appears to be in the better position, having started a family with his wife, Hannah (Nia Long), but his happy-go-lucky, uptight attitude puts a suffocating strain on their marriage. Rell is getting through a fresh breakup by getting stoned alone in his Los Angeles apartment.

In the depths of Rell's depression, the cutest kitten in the world appears on his doorstep to lift his spirits. Rell instantly falls in love, naming the brown tabby Keanu. But tragedy strikes when the cat is nabbed while Rell is away from home.

The cousins follow Keanu's trail to the aforementioned strip club. There, they start playing up their blackness to secure a meeting with Cheddar (Method Man), the joint's head honcho. (Cheddar's name may be a reference to The Wire, where the rapper played a drug dealer known as Cheese Wagstaff, but maybe I'm reading too much into that.)

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The hunt for Keanu eventually results in a full-scale gang war

Cheddar assumes that Clarence and Rell are the Allentown brothers — two hardened killers who gained renown for a raid on a Mexican drug operation based in a church — and they play along. This leads to numerous amusing moments when the not-Allentown brothers accompany Cheddar's crew on a drug sale.

This storyline leans hard into the fish-out-of-water aspects of teaming up the cousins with the gangsters. Rell pairs with crew chief Hi-C (Tiffany Haddish) to sell to a drugged-out Anna Faris, playing herself in a Hollywood Hills mansion, while Clarence and a trio of henchmen keep watch in his minivan. In the "inconspicuous family vehicle," Clarence introduces his new friends to the catalog of his favorite artist, George Michael, although he leaves out the fact that the singer is gay and not white — gotta maintain that street cred, of course.

This scene offers one of the few instances of something in Keanu that could be called social commentary, touching briefly on issues like absentee fathers. And while I wouldn't want the entire movie to be a hard-hitting look at the black experience in America, that kind of satire is such a defining facet of Key & Peele's comedy that it's sorely missed here.

The hunt for Keanu eventually results in a full-scale gang war between Cheddar's 17th Street Blips and a Mexican cartel led by Bacon Diaz (Luis Guzmán). Bacon happens to be related to the dealer that the Allentown brothers took out, and he happens to want Keanu as well.

Both the Allentown brothers' church attack, which opens the film, and a gunfight that breaks out at Diaz's estate are impressive action sequences. Director Peter Atencio, who helmed almost every episode of Key & Peele, shot the scenes in a way that provides a clear sense of the participants in the battles and the locations' layouts, which is no small feat.

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While Rell's pursuit of the titular cat propels Keanu forward, it's the character of Clarence who actually grows the most over the course of the film. He starts out as a meek, urbane soccer dad, but posturing as a deadly gangster forces him to assert himself. And when Hannah hints that their friend Spencer (Rob Huebel) came onto her during a trip, Clarence turns into a fierce defender of his wife's honor. It's a nice touch in a film that is ostensibly about the relationship between these cousins.

Yet as endearing and funny as Keanu can be, it feels like a Key & Peele sketch that's stretched out to a full-length film. The climactic car chase, in particular, seems like padding, a device to get all the characters to the endpoint. And nothing here is as memorable or cutting as, say, the "President Obama's Anger Translator" or "Substitute Teacher" skits.

The jokes manage to land without a political undercurrent; I laughed a lot, especially at the Key & Peele references scattered throughout. To be clear, you don't have to be familiar with Key & Peele to find Keanu funny. But if you are, you'll probably expect something deeper than what the film offers.