'Keanu': SXSW Review

Exploits some but not all of the duo's strengths.

Key and Peele leave cable TV behind for a big-screen walk on the wrong side of the law.

A tale of code-switching, the enduring appeal of George Michael's Faith and a feline who is all kittens to all people, Peter Atencio's Keanu marks the first big-screen vehicle for Comedy Central sensations Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele. Playing middle-class cousins forced to impersonate gangsters so they can rescue the movie's eponymous pet (what do you mean you don't follow that logic?), the actors make the transition with ease in a consistently funny action-comedy. This may not be adequate compensation for the end of their series, which gave them so many more opportunities to try on new personalities and take one-gag ideas for a spin, but it will delight the show's fans while winning over others unlucky enough never to have seen it.

The actors do, in fact, get to play two extra roles here. They enter the film as a pair of "phantom" drug dealers from Allentown, who shoot up a rival druglord's operation in a Carmina Burana-blasting sequence that could easily have been a Key & Peele parody. During the mayhem, we witness the escape of the victim's pet: a tiny gray-and-white kitty so precious that even a hypothetical, couldn't-be-real movie critic with a deep-seated dislike for cats would find him adorable. The kitten scampers across L.A., winding up at the doorstep of Rell (Peele), who has been in a heartbroken stupor since his girlfriend dumped him. Suddenly, life has meaning again. Naturally, Rell names his savior Keanu.

Two weeks later, Keanu vanishes in a break-in. (In a jab at film conventions typical of these comedians, the sky erupts with rain just in time for Rell to find the cat gone.) Rell and his family-man cousin Clarence (Key), whose wife and daughter are gone for the weekend, set out to find the cat they're sure has been kidnapped.

Which is less likely: That the men go to a rough-part-of-town strip club expecting to find Keanu, or the cat is there — renamed New Jack and now doted on by Cheddar, a drug merchant played by Method Man? Though they enter the club wearing their dorkiest duds, Clarence and Rell try to fit in with thugspeak and puffed-up posturing. They claim to be the Allentown assassins when the opportunity arises, and stumble into an arrangement that could only make sense here: If they go out on a drug deal with this crew, they'll be given New Jack as a gesture of respect.

Long before the men have run out of funny ways to flub the epithet-laden slang they're trying to recreate based on movies they've seen, Clarence and Rell are neck-deep in actual crime. While making a delivery of Cheddar's new drug (called "Holy Shit," it makes you feel "like you're smokin' crack with God"), they find themselves at a movie star's home and wind up leaving with blood on their hands. (Let's not spoil the surprise cameo, but her performance is enjoyably deranged.) They also leave their new crew changed in a way few viewers will be able to predict.

Getting Keanu back can't be this simple, and it isn't. The kitty has won hearts all over this City of Angels, and our newly emboldened (if not exactly toughened) heroes will stare death down, or more likely cower before it, a couple more times before this quest is complete. Tragically for Key & Peele fans, none of their daring feats require cross-dressing. That's an oversight that simply must be corrected in the pair's next feature.

Venue: South By Southwest Film Festival
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Production company: Principato-Young Entertainment
Cast: Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Method Man, Nia Long, Will Forte
Director: Peter Atencio
Screenwriters: Jordan Peele, Alex Rubens
Producers: Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Peter Principato, Paul Young, Joel Zadak
Executive producers: Richard Brener, Ben Ormand
Director of photography: Jas Shelton
Production designer: Aaron Osborne
Costume designer: Abby O'Sullivan
Editor: Nicholas Monsour
Composers: Steve Jablonsky, Nathan Whitehead
Casting directors: Nicole Abellera, Jeanne McCarthy

Not rated, 97 minutes (shown without end credits)