Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Movie Review: "Keanu" (2016)

© Warner Bros.

There is no doubt (for me) that the best trailer released this past winter was for the first comedy/action feature by genius Key & Peele comedy duo and besties, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele. The world needed Keanu. I watched that Red Band trailer easily 35 times. In a film that takes the most serious action movie tropes not-so-seriously, Hollywood's attempt at a funny John Wick features elements that make summer movie audiences cheer and cry for more (explosions! surprise cameos! gratuitous boobies! kitty cats!) and combines them with this lovable team. Mirroring their frequently-used character-types, Key and Peele breath life into this movie—because without them? It's actually kind of forgettable and boring. Oh. But the cat helps. Any movie is improved by a cat as cute as this one.

Rell (Peele) is a recently dumped pothead, who, in a moment of pure loneliness, discovers a lost kitten on his doorstep, promptly naming the tyke Keanu and making him the center of his world. Clarence (Key), Rell's cousin, is a corporate team-building coach, and more than a little "tightly wound," as his wife (Nia Long) likes to point out before leaving with their kid and another man for a weekend away... somewhere. Let loose this weekend, she says. Be the real Clarence, she insists. Hardly the gut follower, Clarence unwittingly gets pulled into a dangerous rescue mission when they return to Rell's apartment that night to find Keanu the kitten missing!

Piecing together that the 17th Street Blips and their leader, Chedder (Method Man), are responsible for 'napping the cat, the cousins go on an adventure to save Keanu, which will mean shielding their nerdy images and taking on that of notorious thugs in order to infiltrate the gang. It isn't long before they find themselves roped into a terrifying drug run, with guns and a new street drug in hand, and the lingering promise that Keanu will be returned to them in return for their help. Little do they know that Keanu may be more important than any of them realize.

I think that any fan of this duo responds to their comedic styles differently. Call it a preference, or just fancying their delivery, but Key's manic energy gets me every time. His timing is impeccable, and it's why he plays the fervent, edge-of-psycho roles so well. Peele is almost on the opposite end of the spectrum. He's laid back and casual; words slipping out, occasionally slurred but full of purpose, and there's no shortage of incredulous looks (usually reserved for Key). Where the film goes completely right is in letting these two guys just do what they do. The balance they bring to the comedy is a slam-dunk, and they elevate this otherwise odd—and sort of dull—movie simply because they're in every single scene. It's when they're not together that scenes go off the rails, and the tone goes all over the damn place.

The entirety of the comedy comes from the concept of these two Black guys being so stereo-typically "white;" totally soft, street-dumb, and the opposite of tough. Clarence's love for George Michael is not only a personal characteristic, it actually becomes a significant sub-plot. And Rell's mopey, stoner lifestyle is only punctuated by the fact that Clarence has to drive him around everywhere in his mini-van. For all intents and purposes, these two are effectively useless. Is this because they're Black men who, in the eyes of the larger community, "act white"? Or perhaps because they haven't quite embraced their rougher, tougher POC selves?

I'm not sure, though the movie certainly suggests it's a little bit of both. Normally, it wouldn't even be something I'd touch on since I'm no cultural savant, but the story doesn't shy away from putting these two straight-laced guys into scenarios they know they're not cut out for—it's basically all they talk about. The entire plot leans real hard on the racial stereotype swapping (this is a world where Will Forte sells hard drugs, and wears cornrows and a gold grill), using the idea wherever it can to get a laugh, and this is an element of comedy that has worked pretty darn well for Key and Peele over the years. And in Keanu, it works, too, but only for them. The rest of the cast is rendered two-dimensional when painted with the stereotype brush, forced into situational comedy bits that just don't make sense and to endure long, drawn-out scenes that shouldn't have made it into the final cut.

There's no ignoring that some bits and jokes are pushed too far, for too long; the climax builds adequately, but then the finale completely peters out of steam. The laughs abruptly stop, not because the jokes stopped flying, but because everything turns suddenly very stale. Reveals are convenient rather than inventive or fun, and it feels like Peele and his writing partner, Alex Rubens, were maybe too stoned by the last 10 pages to really put in any effort into the wrap-up dialogue. The relationship between Nia Long and Key is contrived and awkward, with an unnecessary (albeit super predictable) B-story/side-plot involving perpetual creep-meister, Rob Huebel. And an otherwise even-keeled performance by Tiffany Haddish, who plays lady-Blip, Hi-C, is knocked sideways when her character is forced to totally shift gears. Too often, we're left laughing, not because something is funny, but because we can't figure out why they chose to do it.

Thankfully, the point of the film (Keanu the Kitten!!) is never lost. Keanu is always at the center of the objective—not just for our main guys, but for the villains, too. It places an importance on the little guy that makes him more than just a plot device. As a result, the action sequences were funny and moved quickly, particularly when that kitty performer was doing his choreographed runs through the gun shots, blood splatter, and crumbling mortar. With plenty of action and gun-fighting, and just enough blood to satisfy an R-rating (but not so much that it would make the common movie-goer cringe), the lazy dialogue and inconceivable plot evolution is easy to ignore.

I mean, who are we kidding? It's a movie about a kitten in a doo-rag, for god's sake! Key + Peele + Gangster Kitten is the formula you were promised, and it's the formula you get. And it all equals a good time.

Rating: ★★½ / 5 stars

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