The absurdist kick in “Keanu,” the first movie to showcase Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele together, has a tiny tail and squeak.
Beloved of crime lords and doofuses alike, Keanu the kitten shows up early, padding underfoot through one of those artfully staged drug labs — armed guards, white powder, ominous lighting — that’s soon lit up with the sights and sounds of heavy artillery. Much like the Buddhalicious star he’s named for — Keanu slips unscathed through the fast-and-furious raining bullets, miraculously dodging death as a heavenly chorus lays down an apocalyptic track. Kitten has skills.
That’s the high-concept goof in “Keanu,” a 10-minute sketch that’s been inflated to bloated feature length. Running 90 minutes too long, the movie is a slack, erratically amusing excuse to watch Key and Peele tag-team after ending “Key & Peele,” their celebrated, often blazingly funny Comedy Central series that turned them into national memes. The road to Key and Peele’s future as movie headliners, though, will take more than kittens, guns and a riff on gangbangers head-bobbing to George Michael. What’s needed is a sharper, smarter edge, like the one they used on their show to lacerate pop-cultural and political targets; also, more and better jokes.
The good news is that Key and Peele comfortably hold the big screen, whether they’re playing ordinary guys or imitating killers. The movie, which Peele wrote with the longtime “Key & Peele” contributor Alex Rubens, opens with the kitten running from the drug-lab shootout and landing at the door of Rell (Peele), who’s distraught after being dumped by his girlfriend. Like every man in the movie, Rell falls for the kitten and — after rising from a miasma of pot smoke while flanked by posters for “New Jack City” and Michael Mann’s “Heat” — names his fluffy new friend Keanu. A new love is born, one that’s blessed by Rell’s cousin, Clarence (Key), if also nearly doomed.
Things start cooking when Keanu disappears, forcing Rell and Clarence to play detective while chasing leads and kitten tail. They end up in a strip club, where women provide the topless decoration on and off the pole in a joint, bada bing, run by a gangster, Cheddar (Method Man), and his gunslingers. (One of the flatline jokes is that the crew calls itself the 17th Street Blips, a la the Crips and the Bloods.) There, Rell and Clarence, latter-day Hardy Boys, pretend to be hard-core criminals, a quickie makeover that largely involves putting a swagger in their step, talking street (or like black extras in an exploitation flick) and punctuating their cartoonish braggadocio with R-rated filler.
Rell and Clarence are performing thuggery, at least at first, walking the bad-man walk and talking the talk while frantically looking for the exit. And despite the sluggish passages and hum of unease, it’s fun watching these performers play with cliches amid a guest visit from Anna Faris and the sight of Clarence’s minivan’s becoming a safe space for gangsta sharing and caring. (The director is Peter Atencio, another “Key & Peele” veteran.) But as the genre machinery chugs along, the bang-bang begins to overwhelm the movie, and the underlying critique gives way to a what-me-worry shrug. Keanu may be Rell and Clarence’s power animal. But he’s no match for Liam “Neesons,” the sketch character whom Key and Peele named in honor of the Hollywood hepcat who explodes minds and bodies both.