Directed by: Peter Atencio
Premise: A pair of mild mannered friends (Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele) enter the criminal underworld in an effort to reclaim a kitten that was stolen by drug dealers.
What Works: Keanu was directed by Peter Atencio and shot by cinematographer Jas Shelton. As a work of cinema, Keanu is extremely well crafted. Sequences taking place in grungy clubs and criminal lairs have a tangible filth about them and scenes located in affluent Hollywood homes have a slick and sickly glow. The movie also has some impressive shootouts and chases that are on par with those of a straightforward action picture. Keanu features a few bizarre visuals, namely a drug-fueled fantasy sequence set to the music of George Michael. As drug humor goes, the jokes of this set piece mostly land and the movie is distinguished by its weirdness. Keanu is headlined by the comedy team of Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele and a frequent topic of their comedy is the complexity of racial identity. They play on that here as two middle class African Americans who are ingratiated into mainstream white culture and find themselves having to code switch when they go into a different part of town. The film smartly connects language with identity as these two mild mannered men pose as killers and their facade becomes reality. The extent to which the filmmakers have inserted this intelligent humor into an otherwise absurd movie is admirable.
What Doesn’t: Keanu is well shot and smartly intentioned but it’s just not very good. The film intends to be a comedy but nothing in it is all that funny. The play on racial stereotypes is humorous but that is mostly an aside. The main thrust of the movie is a fish-out-of-water story in which two guys pretend they’re hardened criminals. The filmmakers never come up with anything all that funny or interesting to do with the concept. The jokes are frequently lame; one of the ongoing gags involves the music of George Michael. Keegan-Michael Key’s character is a fan but when he falls in with the gangsters he has to convince them that George Michael is cool. That’s the extent of the joke and the filmmakers keep going back to it. A lot of the other drug and crime humor in the film is reminiscent of movies like the Harold and Kumar series. A few absurd flourishes aside, the humor of Keanu is uninspired and frequently offset by the violence. The picture has action sequences that are consistent with a hard-R action film in which people are shot, stabbed, and otherwise maimed. Violence and comedy frequently go together but the tone of the comedy has to be right. That’s where Keanu goes wrong. The violence is painful and bloody and it creates an oppressive, realistic tone that doesn’t mesh with the absurd humor and upbeat sequences. Keanu appears to have been intended to replicate action comedies like Beverly Hills Cop and Bad Boys but the film falls short. This problem shows through in the story. The premise and plot of Keanu are stupid. Many successful comedies are joyfully idiotic but here again the tone of Keanu is irreconcilable with the content. The film is about multidimensional people, not caricatures, who enter into a criminal underworld where the violence is real and painful, not cartoonish. The filmmakers of Keanu wants that seriousness and gravitas but they don’t adhere to a tone or story logic that this requires. The movie has a bunch of absurd plot twists and other story developments that don’t make sense, including an especially stupid last minute reversal in the ending. As a result, much of the film has a disjointed feel that’s confusing instead of comedic.
Bottom Line: Keanu has elements in it that are quite good but on the whole the movie doesn’t cohere and it’s not very funny. Key and Peele remain impressive performers and hopefully their next film will better capitalize on their talents.
Episode: #593 (May 8, 2016)