A two-hour online cat-video binge would yield as many “awws” and probably far more laughs than “Keanu,” an initially amusing but fatally overstretched action-comedy that marks a lamer-than-expected big-screen outing for Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele following the conclusion last year of their frequently brilliant cable series. Enjoyable for a good 15 minutes or so, mostly due to the scene-stealing powers of the adorable, much-coveted kitty whose name gives the movie its title, this is otherwise a stale, repetitive effort whose one-joke premise — two suburban buddies forced to pass themselves off as gangsters in a grimy underworld where they clearly don’t belong — never achieves comic liftoff, much less the richly subversive dimensions typical of Key and Peele’s best work.
The Warner Bros./New Line release debuted as a “work-in-progress” at SXSW ahead of its planned April 29 release, though it would take more than a few technical tweaks to significantly improve what feels, at the moment, like 100 minutes of hit-or-miss comic purr-gatory. That the movie reteams a number of collaborators from Comedy Central’s “Key and Peele” — including director Peter Atencio and screenwriters Peele and Alex Rubens — would seem to bear out the notion that their distinctive brand of double-edged satire is best served and consumed in five-minute sketches. “Keanu,” by contrast, is one flabby tabby that seems to be overstaying its welcome at the half-hour mark, and leans heavily thereafter on over-the-top violence whenever it’s clear the jokes aren’t landing.
That tendency is apparent in the opening sequence, in which the notorious Allentown brothers (imagine darker, longer-haired, more offensive versions of the Salamanca cousins from “Breaking Bad”) stage a bloody attack on a church where drugs are being secretly manufactured. The lone innocent bystander is the aforementioned kitten, who through some miracle of CGI rendering manages to survive, dodging bullets left and right in slo-mo, and even winning over the brothers’ cold, black hearts before escaping and making its way to the suburbs of Los Angeles. There, the tiny furball winds up on the doorstep of Rell (Peele), a pot-smoking underachiever who, having just been dumped by his girlfriend, embraces the kitten as a divine offering and christens it Keanu.
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And why not? Much like the actor whose name he borrows, kitty Keanu makes an effortlessly expressive camera subject and requires no dialogue — only a nimble physicality and a series of cute, quizzical reaction shots — to thoroughly magnetize the screen. Further cementing the connection, the movie is intended in some ways as a parodic riff on “John Wick,” the thrilling (and soon-to-be-sequelized) 2014 action film in which Keanu Reeves avenged the murder of his own beloved pet. Audiences familiar with Key and Peele’s pop-cultural savvy will be unsurprised by the various on-screen allusions to crime thrillers like “Heat” and “New Jack City,” plus throwaway comic references to “Fargo,” “The Shining,” “Crimson Tide” and “Point Break” (all of which figure into one of the movie’s better visual gags).
The movie under scrutiny, alas, seems unlikely to ascend to the level of even a minor classic. The best scenes are those of Keanu bonding with his new owner, Rell, and his best friend, Clarence (Key), a family man whose wife and daughter are conveniently sent out of town for narrative purposes. When Keanu goes missing in a burglary one night, Rell becomes hellbent on getting him back and, together with Clarence, beats some helpful information out of his in-the-know drug dealer (Will Forte in dreads). From there, the duo make their way to the strip-club hangout of the notorious 17th Street Blips (“the ones who got kicked out of the Bloods and the Crips”), led by a formidable thug named Cheddar (Method Man). Sure enough, Cheddar promises to give back the purloined puss if these two self-styled heavies join his crew and help them out with some of their dirty work.
Key and Peele’s signature talent for tweaking and exploding racial stereotypes gets a moderate workout here, as their characters are forced to ditch their plain-vanilla manner of speaking and load up on N-bombs and 12-letter expletives. But under the weight of the pro forma shootouts and car chases that ensue, all the code-switching culture-clash comedy feels weak and belabored here — particularly a running gag involving Clarence’s efforts to sell the hip-hop-loving Blips on the paler charms of George Michael. (Presumably the studio paid a pretty penny for the rights to “Father Figure,” given how often it surfaces on the soundtrack.) Still, the leads remain masters at mining improvisational gold from even the thinnest material: Peele can register panic in a few hilariously shifty eye movements, and the motormouthed Key retains his flair for both the over-the-top pronouncement and the deadpan non sequitur (“Wordness to the turdness,” he notes in a failed attempt at gangsta speak).
There are a few standouts in the supporting cast as well, including Tiffany Haddish as the lone female Blip (who of course must shoulder the burden of Rell’s emotional baggage), plus a delightfully self-mocking cameo from an actress who, in the interests of preserving one of the film’s few legitimate pleasures, shall remain nameless here. Ditto the actor who does the kitten’s very Reeves-like voice in one bizarre hallucination; suffice to say that, as game imitations go, it’s not half bad. “Keanu,” alas, is another story. If only the creatives involved had followed their choice of subject matter to its logical conclusion, they might well have realized the ideal format for their story wasn’t a movie but a meme.