(2016) (Jordan Peele, Keegan-Michael Key) (R)
- QUICK TAKE:
- Action Comedy: Two non-violent, middle-class, suburban black men infiltrate a vicious street gang to steal back their beloved cat.
- Rell's (JORDAN PEELE) longtime girlfriend has just broken up with him, and he doesn't feel like doing anything other than lying on the couch and smoking marijuana. His cousin, Clarence (KEEGAN-MICHAEL KEY), has a weekend to himself, what with his wife, Hannah (NIA LONG), out of town with her daughter, and he wants to live it up. Rell snaps back to life when a mysterious kitten shows up at his door. He decides to take him in, name him "Keanu," and photograph him in funny posed movie scenes for a calendar.
Unfortunately, Rell's house suffers a break-in and Keanu is stolen. Rell goes to his next-door neighbor, drug dealer Hulka (WILL FORTE), who surmises that it was the work of a vicious street gang led by Cheddar (METHOD MAN). Rell and Clarence decide to retrieve Keanu by posing as two near-mythic assassins named the Allentown Gang and getting in good with Cheddar and his fellow gang members Hi-C (TIFFANY HADDISH), Bud (JASON MITCHELL), Stitches (JAMAR MALACHI NEIGHBORS), and Trunk (DARRELL BRITT-GIBSON).
Before long, they are mixed up in the gang lifestyle, demanding payment from a coked-up Anna Faris (HERSELF), running afoul of a Latino crime lord named Bacon (LUIS GUZMAN), and eventually tangling with the real Allentown thugs (also reportedly played by PEELE and KEY, clad in heavy trench coats, sporting dreadlocks, and shot mostly in shadow).
- OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
- Back in the 1970s and '80s, the casts of "Saturday Night Live" were often referred to as the "Not Ready for Primetime Players," meaning they were put on once a week at 11:30 at night because they weren't good enough yet to headline such comedy classics as "Hello, Larry," "My Two Dads," and "Punky Brewster."
Flash forward, a few decades later, and Comedy Central's "Key and Peele" has been delivering big laughs and filling the sketch-comedy/racial commentary hole that "In Living Color" left nearly 20 years ago. Over the course of five seasons and 50+ episodes, the two performers/writers, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, did an awesome job skewering everything from black Republicans to TV weathercasts that scared viewers with warnings of "black ice" (that sounded more like "black guys" ... i.e., "Pay attention, because black ice can come out of nowhere and kill you.")
So, when it was announced they'd finally be making the leap to the big screen with a new full-length comedy, my hopes were high. And while "Keanu" does have some very funny sequences, I am so very sorry to report that, overall, this is a misfire. Maybe I expected more. But to be honest, these two guys are capable of more than just a slapdash action comedy about rival drug lords and the two middle-class, suburban simpletons who wander into their turf war trying to retrieve a beloved cat.
The main problem is the set-up. Key's straight-laced suburban husband and father, Clarence, and Peele's depressed, jilted Rell are just not very compelling characters. We don't spend enough time early on to establish them as personalities or people we care about. I think Key and Peele were hoping we'd latch onto them as a sort of African-American Ferris Bueller and Cameron Frye. But it's unclear who is the real instigator in putting the daffy, move-out-of-our-comfort-zone caper in motion.
It also didn't ring true that the two guys would sacrifice their lives and personal safety for the kitty. Keanu shows up on Rell's doorstep during one of his darkest moments. His girlfriend has just dumped in, and he doesn't want to go on. But it would have been more believable if the cat had been in his possession for a much longer time. Clarence has almost no connection to the animal. And when the stakes are raised and it's clear that the two guys are in serious mortal jeopardy, carrying on after the cat makes little to no sense.
Yeah, maybe I am taking this movie a little too seriously. But that's because Key and Peele and director Peter Atencio take it seriously. So much so, that they get a bit lost in the story and forget if they're making satire, broad comedy, or a straight-up crime thriller. The two main villains, the Allentown brothers, are legitimately scary dudes who kill violently and mercilessly, often with their victims pleading for their lives. The street gangs Clarence and Rell infiltrate are also pretty tough, with the leader, Cheddar (Method Man), clearly being a stone-cold killer. These characters all needed to have quirks and idiosyncrasies that lightened the heavier scenes.
Welcome relief comes mostly from Clarence and his obsession with '80s pop icon George Michael. He convinces most of Cheddar's gang that Michael was a "brother from the streets" who sang about absentee dads ("Father Figure") and revolution ("Freedom"). At another point, Clarence inadvertently gets high on an incredibly potent street drug ("It's like smoking crack with God") and is transported into Michael's classic "Faith" video.
There are also some other sublimely nutty bits, chiefly one involving Anna Faris playing a coked-up version of herself and coaxing Rell and a female gang banger named Hi-C to get involved in a high-stakes game of "Truth or Dare." In truth, this is a very near miss for me. I want more Kay and Peele on both the small and big screen. Maybe next time out, also go for the PG-13 rating. These guys are too gifted to have dozens and dozens of "f" words and references to a certain racial epithet beginning with the letter "n." They're just better than that, and they can make a much, much better movie. I give this a 4 out of 10. (T. Durgin)
Reviewed April 27, 2106 / Posted April 29, 2016
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