One of Key & Peele’s most on-point skits involves Star Magic Jackson Jr., a sequel script doctor who comes on like Mannequin’s Hollywood and takes over a writers room prepping Gremlins 2: The New Batch. After asking everyone sitting at the table to spitball new spin-off gremlin characters for the film, Star gushes at each increasingly idiotic suggestion—brainy gremlin, bat gremlin, sexpot gremlin, vegetable gremlin—and promises they’ll all be in the movie. The joke is that, indeed, they’re all actually in the movie. Watching Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key’s new film, one gets the strong sense that Star made a quickie pit stop early on in the development of Keanu. And while the green lights he gave to everything and the kitchen sink worked miraculously for the Gremlins follow-up, Keanu is more like six skits in search of an author.
After opening with an action-movie flourish, the film drops a kitten on Rell’s (Peele) doorstep. For no reason, really. It’s just irrepressibly cute and Rell takes it to heart instantly, pulling himself up from the funk of a breakup and reigniting his artistic endeavors as he poses the kitten he quickly names Keanu in a variety of famous film tableau for a calendar. He’s unaware that the cat actually belongs to a powerful drug lord, but when Rell and his bestie, Clarence (Key), come back from their bro date to find the kitten’s been kidnapped by a dealer named Cheddar (Method Man), they immediately roll into the underworld in hopes of finding him, even though neither looks like they could win a fight against Malcolm in the Middle-era Bryan Cranston, much less the film’s pair of Breaking Bad-inspired silent hitmen.
Key and Peele aren’t mining territory they haven’t already explored at length on their Comedy Central sketch show, nor do they do a whole lot to elaborate on it. Keanu’s basic joke is the satiric spectacle of two nerds who, by cashing in their faces (to borrow a pointed Stevie Wonder lyric), successfully sham their way through a farce of exaggerated black masculinity. They contort their mouths to force the n-word out and sag their pleated khakis as far as their belts will allow (roughly two inches), their body language suggesting every muscle group is about to give into the former of the fight-or-flight response.
The physical spectacle of their subterfuge gives Key and Peele plenty of opportunity to showcase their chops. (The look on Key’s face after Clarence attempts to flip backward against a wall is indelible.) But the social implications of their charade never delve beyond skin-deep. Imagine the scene in Silver Streak when Gene Wilder has to put shoe polish all over his face to evade authorities, with Richard Pryor coaching him how to be black, stretched out to feature length. Only here Key and Peele are effectively playing Gene Wilder playing Richard Pryor. Keanu is declawed by design, but it’s hard not to wonder what the cat could’ve dragged in.