Harsh Texture


Key & Peele's first cinematic feature kept its social commentary in the subtext, foregrounding a glossy action-comedy hybrid. Underneath the histrionics and George Michael references lies a dark story of African American conformity

Will Forte doesn’t need to appear in order to appreciate Keanu as the heir to MacGruber. The film jumps right into hard-R violence with two nigh-supernatural assassins gunning down a drug gang. Violence is not totally anathema to comedy. Some Like it Hot opened with its own massacre and Beverly Hills Cop mostly stayed on the path of a standard actioner. Compared to MacGruber Keanu’s violence, nudity, and amorality are decidedly low stakes.

Keanu does play like something of a long Key and Peele sketch, and to the film’s credit the premise does allow for a spry hour and a half run time. It also allows for an extended exploration of their favorite themes. While Keanu is ostensibly concerned with its namesake kitten, most of the run time is spent wrestling with black male masculinity.  

“Keanu” here refers to a kitten that Rell (Jordan Peele) adopts during the deepest throes of longing following a bitter break up. When his apartment is ransacked and the kitten stolen, he enlists the help of hen-pecked family man Clarence (Keegan Michael Key).

The trail for the kitten leads Rell and Clarence to the Blips gang. They are such named for their status as rejects from the notorious Bloods and Crips. Despite their low standing, Rell and Clarence try to integrate into their ranks and prove their worth despite being creatures of comfortable middle-class life. When confronted with the gang members both immediately assume rougher identities, dropping profanities and racial epithets with a palpable eagerness to please.  

Clarence is concerned with winning over the men. The film’s best jokes come from his undying love toward George Michael. When the Blips discover Michael’s music on Clarence’s iphone he adamantly defends the artist. He’s so successful that the Blips are signing along to Father Figure and tattooing Michael’s name across their bodies within fifteen minutes of screen time.

Rell is set on proving his masculinity to the sole woman in the Blips organization. He accompanies her on gang hits and steals time alone to flirt.

In other ways, Key and Peele weave their outlook to Keanu more subtly. Despite following a fairly standard action movie framework, familiar from the aforementioned Beverly Hills Cop to Die Hard, and even Back to the Future, Keanu exists in a world of consequences. Like Moonlight also in 2016, the established film-hero signifiers land the protagonists in lengthy jail sentences.

The plot mechanisms that land the two in jail are hardly noble. It isn’t a stretch to see the police engaging in entrapment with what turns out to be elaborately staged sting operations. Indeed all the truly criminal activities that Rell and Clarence engage in are directly guided by police.

Bleaker still is that in this world it seems that Rell and Clarence are rewarded for winding up in prison. It’s a particularly bittersweet conclusion to the film. The characters are finally accepted as black men through incarceration, not the success they enjoyed in their previous lives. Their exploits win the respect of their fellow inmates, so impressed that they earn a privileged status in prison. Rell and Clarence even gain a greater appreciation from the opposite sex. Clarence’s wife is so impressed by his flashes of anger and displays of violence that she turns into a doting prison vistee. Rell likewise earns the hand of his betrayer...

Published: Dec. 26, 2018, 12:35 a.m.
Updated: Dec. 26, 2018, 12:54 a.m.