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Before the world premiere of their first co-starring film “Keanu,” Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele stood before a SXSW audience rippling with anticipation and erupting with cheers. They chucked out plush toys of the titular kitten, with grown adults throwing themselves over chairs and each other to claim one. And they told us this screening was a “work-in-progress” only if we didn’t laugh hard enough. Basically, we were to be “Keanu”s test audience. Good news for the “Key and Peele” stars, their delightfully bonkers riff on “John Wick” passes with flying colors.
In “Keanu,” the pair plays cousins in search of a stolen kitten. After escaping a drug den massacre, cuddly little Keanu (a kitten so unrelentingly adorable even this staunch dog-person cooed over his close-ups) raced out across Los Angeles and found himself on the stoop of a heartbroken pothead (Peele), who was grieving hard over a break-up. But “Keanu” is his salvation. They form an instant bond. So when a local gang called the Blips trashes his pad and steals his cat to be their leader’s “gangster pet,” he and his cousin (Key) will do anything to get Keanu back. Even if that means diving into the city’s seedy underground of deadly drug dealers, samurai sword-swinging celebs, and strip clubs named after venereal diseases.
Penned by Peele and Alex Rubens, “Keanu” is an action-comedy confidant in its genre. The jokes come fast and furious and range from willfully silly to loony spoofing and sharp satire. A good chunk of its humor centers around Keanu. This criminally cute furball so lovable he melts the hearts of even LA’s most hardened gangsters, causing all kinds of mayhem and laughs as one sneering ruffian after another cuddles the little scene-stealer. Anyone who’s watched their sketch show knows Key and Peele and can change up characters in a heartbeat. Here, they leap from civilians who flinch at holding a gun to bold-talking badasses firing off rounds in whiplash speed. But “Key and Peele” director Peter Atencio is sure to cut in a quick reaction shot of one or the other delivering a look of shock and relief that they are still alive as bullets fly and bodies pile up around them. And boom, he sticks the landing.
As a major fan of “Key and Peele,” which wrapped its run last year on Comedy Central, I expected “Keanu” to be the kind of funny that makes you laugh so hard it hurts. And it is. Of course it is. These two are some of the best comedians working today, bringing a signature playfulness that makes jokes about race, manhood and even gang violence totally accessible. Their chemistry is on point as ever, and if Warner Bros. is smart they’ll lock the duo down for a string of buddy comedies immediately. But what I hadn’t predicted was how solid and hard-hitting the action scenes of this action-comedy would be.
“Keanu” kicks off with a “Matrix”-inspired battle scene between a Hispanic drug lord and a pair of mute but menacing assassins, draped in long black leather coats and that flare behind them as they do parkour in slo-mo slay shots. It’s an explosive jump off that paves the way for thrilling yet funny car chases (with exciting kitty action!) and several suspenseful yet bonkers shoot-outs, including a climax that had our audience cheering, gasping and guffawing.
Basically, “Keanu” delivers all that it’s awesome trailer promised and then some. Maybe the cut that hits theaters in April will be tweaked a bit from this version. But the crowd at Austin’s opulent Paramount theater was so racked with laughter throughout, it’s hard to imagine what they would change.
“Keanu” opens April 29.