If you dropped a cute kitten into Michael Mann’s “Heat,” would Robert De Niro have gone all soft and goo-goo eyed? Might Wesley Snipes’ drug empire in “New Jack City” been brought to its knees by a cuddly face with whiskers? Could Al Pacino’s rage in “Scarface” have been melted away by a feline “little friend”?
Such is the question of “Keanu,” Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele’s satisfyingly ridiculous and consistently funny big-screen debut for the slyly disarming brand of humor they nimbly practiced on their recently ended sketch comedy series, “Key & Peele.” Much of that show’s easy rhythm and skillful unmasking of masculinity have been transferred intact. “Keanu” was written by Peele and Alex Rubens, a former “Key & Peele” writer, and directed by Peter Atencio, also an alumnus from the show.
Whereas some in their leap into movies opt for grander, swaggering personas, Key and Peele have instead chosen a movie centered on a cat named Keanu, who, in one dream sequence, is voiced by Keanu Reeves. This, and this alone, is enough to warrant a Nobel, if not an Oscar.
The kitten, formerly a drug lord’s pet, shows up on the Los Angeles doorstep of Rell Williams (Peele) like pint-sized salvation for the recently dumped Rell. But soon after Rell begins posing him in movie scenes (“Fargo,” “Point Break”), Keanu is taken from him.
Rell pursues Keanu with his cousin Clarence (Key, tremendously winning). One is a lazy pothead, the other a nerdy, high-strung father; both are about the furthest thing from “hard.” Their search leads them from their comfortable suburban environs and into a violent crime underworld where the kitten is surprisingly valuable currency. No one, not even Method Man’s drug kingpin Cheddar, can resist him.
Clarence and Rell unconvincingly improvise thuggish identities — Tectonic and Shark Tank, they spit out when asked for their names — but manage to be mistaken for fearsome hit men. The jokes come out of not just their poor gestures at being tough guys (when Cheddar’s gang shares stories of bloodshed, Rell can only brag of seeing an early, exclusive screening of “The Blair Witch Project”) but of the soft hearts within even murderous gangsters.
Clarence, taken for a wise veteran of the street, imparts the lessons inherent in George Michaels’ “Father Figure” while sitting in the front seat of his minivan. Michaels, he of tight blue jeans and bleach blonde hair, looms large throughout the film, culminating in a surreal drug-induced sequence where Clarence is rapturously absorbed into the music video of “Faith.” This, too, is prize-worthy.
So see “Keanu” for such divine absurdities. Do not see it for its neat narrative or scene-to-scene tonal consistency — things which are, after all, less vital for movies revolving around a kitten named after the guy from “The Matrix.” There also isn’t quite as much of Key and Peele’s trademark social justice satire here, even once the cops show up; the parodies of “Keanu” are more cuddly than biting.
But few make better playthings of racial stereotype than Key and Peele. Take, for instance, the white, hip-hop-loving weed dealer (Will Forte) who cries when his De La Soul albums are smashed. (Anna Farris also makes a cameo as an extreme version of herself.)
As the movie posters above Rell’s bed (“Heat,” “New Jack City”) make clear, this is Key and Peele’s love letter to 1990s action movies. Driving a minivan and chasing a cat, they enter a movie land populated by Hollywood clichΘs of black men, and emerge ludicrous, triumphant heroes, kitty in tow.
On the big screen
“Keanu,” a Warner Bros. release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “violence, language throughout, drug use and sexuality/nudity.” Running time: 98 minutes. Three stars out of four.