Seconds into Keanu, the audience is granted a tacit introduction to the film’s most important character, and perhaps the most dynamic star to grace the big screen since the retirement of Katharine Hepburn: the titular kitten. Though at this point unnamed and unassigned to any knowable narrative, the pint-sized feline nonetheless swipes up our alliances right away, earning willing participants in whatever conflicts may follow. (A task few humans could muster.)
Our instantaneous alignment with Keanu isn’t a mere luxury; unconditional love for the cat is integral to the emotional understanding of the film’s story. Although the average helping of suspension of disbelief might allow us to “accept” the fact that a hapless schmoe might risk life and limb to reunite with his furry friend, our own affections for the tabby in question are what keeps us wholly invested in the high-stakes mission.
We do indeed both understand and invest, thanks to the most brilliant exploit in tenderfoot casting since George Lucas hired his handyman to star in American Graffiti. We’re totally behind every choice made by Jordan Peele’s dopey Rell, not to mention the series of increasingly vicious criminals who cross his path, in the name of Keanu. This cat is that adorable.
While an animal this charming could conceivably sustain a 100-minute movie on its own accord, Keanu also benefits from the comic acumen of Peele and his (quite literally here) partner-in-crime Keegan-Michael Key; the latter plays Rell’s somewhat more levelheaded cousin and reluctant sidekick on the quest to rescue Keanu from a menacing gang leader who snatched him up during a burglary.
Key and Peele are not exactly channeling the comic peaks we know of their sketch work, which is more often than not inflated by a sense of sociopolitical vitality completely absent from the just-for-fun Keanu. Still, the fellas are playing to their strengths with these simple but affable characters. Key’s Clarence is an uptight people-pleaser unaccustomed to standing up for himself; anyone who’s seen a movie before can pinpoint the arc he’s setting up to follow the moment his wife bothers to mention he never “lets loose.”
Starry-eyed Rell is a touch more amorphous, though to a positive end, allowing the comic chameleon that is Jordan Peele to react accordingly to whatever the frenetic situation the movie throws at him: he gets to play both silly and straight, driven and cowardly, et al. And hey—even if you get tired of dorky good guy shtick entailed by Rell and Clarence, the duo’s conquest demands of them regular bouts of role playing, which inspires regular cackles.
As you can imagine, a movie founded on such a dimensionless premise does begin to drag after a while; that it never hits the brakes altogether is a testament to the starring duo’s energy. They do manage to make late-in-film comic routines and high-concept set pieces work just as well as earlier ones, though they cannot avoid a few dull moments along the journey.
Keanu’s biggest shortcoming is its inability to properly execute so much of its action, an element that is profoundly important to the film’s latter half. A number of the visual gags strewn throughout the guns-a-blazin’ and engines-a-revvin’ climax suffer from inarticulate direction, demoting comic moments that might have otherwise gone over like gangbusters. Few laughs are lost altogether, but a good deal don’t live up to their potential.
Even with missteps like these, and a fairly unambitious creative scope in comparison to the work Key and Peele have committed to the small screen, Keanu is heartily, sweetly, and often riotously enjoyable. As real life dweebs and phony criminals, Key and Peele are often hilarious. Their array of hijinks are consistently amusing—never too repetitive, and even occasionally surprising. And, if I haven’t nailed down this point hard enough just yet, let me do my best to rectify that: Cutest. F***ing. Cat. Ever.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 fish-filled burritos.
Images: Warner Bros.
Michael Arbeiter is the East Coast Editor of Nerdist. Send him cat GIFs on Twitter @MichaelArbeiter.