I honestly never thought much good would come out of MadTV. The series debuted when I was 14 and it quickly became that show I watched the first half hour of until SNL came on at 10:30. Key and Peele weren’t in that original line up, they came around by the time I was in college and lost interest in watching any of MadTV. I was a little surprised when Comedy Central announced in 2012 that Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele were getting their own series I was pretty surprised. Not anything against them, I just didn’t think of MadTV as producing anyone or any material that was all that lasting. I was very wrong.
Now that their five season run has wrapped, the duo is trying to bring their distinctive comedy style to the big screen. Their first outing is Keanu, a very strange little film that is deeply inspired by John Wick. Peele plays Rell, fresh off a break up who is encouraged by his friend, Clarence (played by Key) to get himself together. Rell’s relief from grief comes in the form of an adorable kitten he names Keanu. What he doesn’t know is that Keanu has ties to both the Mexican and Los Angeles crime cartels and this send our two protagonists into a comic-ly absurd tribute to action movies.
It is very obvious that both men and the director love movies. Early on, Rell is making a calendar featuring Keanu in iconic film scenes each month. Posters cover walls referencing 1990s action and gangsta films. When Keanu is taken by Cheddar (Method Man) he’s renamed New Jack. Two murderous brothers are featured throughout the film and they harken back to both Boondock Saints and the early work of Robert Rodriguez. However, this is not a parody of those films but more a tribute mixed with the banter of Key and Peele.
The key to the film lies in the interaction between our leads. Key and Peele have such excellent chemistry together that I could sit through a long drawn out dialogue just between them and be perfectly happy. The film even manages briefly to recreate the road trip moments from the television series. They also play with the idea of “blackness” for a large majority of the film. Both men have addressed through their comedy how being biracial was a challenge to them growing up. In Keanu, they must journey into Blip territory (all the people who got kicked out of the Bloods and Crips) to a strip club with a rather unfortunate name. Once inside, they have a conversation about how to talk to the people their and they devolve into movie studio “blackspeak”. So, while tipping their hat to early 1990s crime films they enjoyed they also take time to acknowledge the absurdity of the portrayal of “black thugs” on the screen.
The film does have its lulls and can sometimes feel like a sketch from their series drawn out for too long. The third act gets very messy and lacks clear plot focus. There are a couple character setup to be the villains who fizzle out and the film pulls someone out of left field to serve as the big bad of the climax. Our main characters get satisfying endings, though a romance subplot feels forced onto us but isn’t too terrible. Keanu is a great first outing in feature films for Key and Peele. I think they have a lot of potential, given some more tighter plotting, to produce some very watchable and re-watchable comedies.