Bereft since Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele packed up their Comedy Central sketch show Key & Peele last September? Never fear! The comedians are back, this time on the big screen at SXSW, and this time, they’ve brought kittens.
Specifically, stuffed animal kittens, which they tossed out into a pumped but sleepy crowd at a 12:45 a.m. “work-in-progress” screening last night for Keanu, their first movie as co-headliners. Technically, the movie is still unfinished, “which means if you like it, good, that’s the movie,” Key said. “And if you don’t, fuck you, we’re changing it so hard! It’s going to be a different movie. If you don’t like it, it’s just going to be John Wick 2.”
John Wick, if you’ve forgotten, is the 2014 cult movie where actual Keanu Reeves hunts down the idiot thug who killed his puppy, and it’s clearly one of many inspirations for this kitten-gangster caper in which middle-class buddies Rell (Peele) and Clarence (Key) infiltrate a gang to retrieve Keanu, the movie’s feline star. Keanu’s so adorable that even the most bloodthirsty drug lords stop mid-killing to moon over him. Further proof of homage to actual Keanu: At one point, kitten Keanu starts guiding Key out of a drug trip like the Oracle from The Matrix.
How does Keanu come into the heroes’ lives? Well, after escaping from a bloodbath at a meth lab, the kitty winds up on Rell’s doorstep just as he’s been dumped by his girlfriend. (“I look like Apollo Creed,” Rell tells Clarence, as he does giant bong hit to try to recover from the break-up. “Which Rocky?” asks Clarence. “The one where he dies!”) Not to give too much away, but Keanu’s eventual kidnapping involves a Liam Neeson movie, Rell’s idiot weed-dealing neighbor (Will Forte, with teeth grillz), a gang called the Blips (made up of motherfuckers kicked out of the Bloods and the Crips), and its leader, Cheddar (Method Man), who dresses Keanu in a do-rag and gold chains and renames him New Jack Kitty.
Desperate times call for desperate measures, and soon Rell and Clarence, with their very-much-not-hood nerd clothes and telltale elocution (“You sound like Richard Pryor doing an impression of a white guy,” Rell tells Clarence), are meeting with Cheddar, and leading his gang members in team-building exercises and lessons on the deeper meaning of George Michael lyrics — until, in one of the movie’s funniest scenes, a well-known actress (let’s keep the surprise) sends up her own image and shit gets real.
Twitter and critical reaction to Keanu has been mixed. Variety called the film “lamer-than-expected” and criticized it for repeating the same joke over and over, while Indiewire and Vanity Fair both pointed out that the film’s more like a Key & Peele greatest hits compilation than a cohesive movie. But honestly, do you care? If you like Key & Peele, anything with Key and Peele is worth seeing in a theater. If you’re a newbie, all of the jokes — and there are plenty of funny surprises — will seem fresh. The redband trailer for Keanu has racked up 2 million views on YouTube; audiences are thirsty, and if the only prescription right now is this movie, that ain’t bad.
And if they need to get more butts in the theater, Key and Peele can always go from city to city pitching stuffed kittens into audiences across the U.S. “We think you’re gonna love this cat so much that we wanted to give you a keepsake just in case you fell so in love with the cat you couldn’t leave the theater without the cat,” Key said, opening up a bag he’d brought onstage at SXSW. “We have some little Keanus here,” Peele added, aiming one throw for the balcony, and only reaching about the tenth row of the theater. The pair made jokes about how they’d been warned not to toss the kittens into the venue’s delicate sconces, though there was no way they could even come close. Finally, they gave up. “This is very unromantic,” said Key, “but we’re going to have to save the last two and walk them up to the balcony.”