The governing theme of the sketch-comedy series Key & Peele concerned the dislocation felt by two biracial men who didn’t know whether to embrace the stereotypes of white or black culture, often splitting the difference with hilariously tone-deaf consequences. Stars Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele established a reliable pattern over the course of the series: The former was the frenetic, tightly wound yin to the latter’s more deliberate and casually crazy yang, though these roles could switch with disarming suddenness. This switch was often the base of Key & Peele’s comedy, the fluidity of the pair’s respective personas parodying the rigidity of the contrivances sold to us by pop culture as “identity,” regardless of our race.
Keanu, the duo’s first joint film vehicle, theoretically extends Key & Peele’s comic aesthetic. Like many of the team’s sketches, the film is a parody of action-genre cinema and 1990s-era rap music, locating the commonality in the two forms, pinpointing the differences between black and white machismo and how black violence is sold to privileged whites as a condescendingly, insidiously vicarious validation of the latter’s masculinity. Key and Peele respectively play Clarence and Rell, two affable middle-class dweebs who, for their comfortable lifestyles and soft-spoken demeanors, scan as stereotypically white, which they clearly digest as a form of emasculation that they attempt to massage with a steady consumption of aggressive pop art. Posters for New Jack City and Heat are featured prominently in Rell’s apartment, and an adventurous weekend for the pair involves a night out to see the new “Liam Neesons” film. Rell attempts to stage a pseudo-rebellious moment of blasting N.W.A.’s “Fuck Tha Police” on Clarence’s family-van stereo, only to crank it down when a police car actually idles by.
These episodes are mildly amusing, but familiar and redundant of funnier sketches on Key & Peele. Keanu marks time in a manner that recalls either version of The Nutty Professor, the films of Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder, or, more recently, Spy. In these and countless other comedies, one’s primed to initially suffer the restriction of a famous performer’s id, waiting for the inevitable exhilaration of its release somewhere in the second act. Clarence and Rell are nerds who get mixed up a scheme that suggests a blend of John Wick and a variety of gangster films, and so they must learn to “act black” if they’re to infiltrate a drug empire. When Clarence and Rell finally assume their thug personas, they do so with an uninhibited suddenness that’s briefly shocking, letting loose with a torrent of obscenities. Key and Peele particularly inform racial epithets with a variety of resonances, allowing the audience to understand that these men resent having to resort to slurs as a reassurance of their bravado, while simultaneously reveling in said bravado.
Yet Keanu never corals its themes into a successful comedy. The film is strange rather than funny, and often inexplicably separates its duo, splitting them off into parallel sketches that are crosscut with a drab and arrhythmic sense of timing. A potentially uproarious interlude between Rell and Anna Faris (as herself) has no punchline, and the momentum of the scene is frequently undermined by the lame segues to Clarence as he sells a group of young gang-bangers on the appeal of George Michael. No episode connects to any of the others, as there’s no sense in this film of the escalation that drives great comedies. There are more laughs in a mediocre five-minute sketch of Key & Peele than there are in the entirety of Keanu’s 100 minutes.
More troubling, the film represents a compromise of Key and Peele’s comedy, as it celebrates the perverted masculinity it purports to satirize. The film’s violence is played ugly and straight, which might work if the jokes were strong enough to complement it, but, in this context, the disparity between the various tones deadens Keanu rather than heightens it. And the violence is hypocritically cancelled out when it no longer serves the filmmakers’ sensationalistic purposes, revealed to be pretend or inconsequential and to have no morally sullying effect on the protagonists. Clarence and Rell are un-ironically shown to play at being gangsters and to consequently win the sexual respect of the objects of their desires, fulfilling a white fantasy of street cred gained by safe proxy. Key and Peele have often wrestled with the ambiguity of loving tropes that they intellectually know to be disreputable, but Keanu finds them losing sight of their intellectual distance. Eager to be the next Pryor and Wilder, which is within their range of talent, Key and Peele settle here for hacky action-movie idolatry.
Keanu is often lit in a series of blacks and metallic blues that purposefully recall the lurid urban action films being parodied, and this transfer honors that polish with a rich sense of color and a pristine and detailed image. (The only blurred detail this critic detected was intentional and pivotal to the plot, which partially revolves around two ghostly doppelgangers.) The top-shelf sound mixes would mesh seamlessly within any "straight" action production, as they abound in a subtle and expertly mixed cacophony of gunfire and car chases and crashes. The film’s formal qualities are perfunctory, perhaps by design, but they’re attractively rendered here. The image pops and the various mixes sing with bass-y, percussive intensity.
The gag reel and "Keanu: My First Movie" offer disposable assemblies of footage of the film’s cast goofing around on set. The deleted scenes included here are mostly variations of sequences that appear in the film, but they’re notable for often being funnier than the takes used in the final cut, indicating that a better version of Keanu might’ve gotten lost somewhere in the editing process. Still, this is a slim, quite negligible package.
Key and Peele’s film debut as a duo is a dull and ugly oddity that suggests a middling sketch of their TV series if it were to be blown up to ungainly proportions. The film receives a fine transfer and a nearly nonexistent supplements package.