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Guns, Drugs, and Cat-Nip: Key and Peele's 'Keanu' counters the dour summer movie slate

Guns, Drugs, and Cat-Nip: Key and Peele's 'Keanu' counters the dour summer movie slate

The lead up to this year's summer movie season has been kind of uhhh, weird and depressing. Flicks like "Batman v. Superman" and "Hardcore Henry" have made a leisurely trip to the local movie theater feel like you're strapping into some kind of hellish 9/11 simulator ride. And so, by virtue of just showing up in theaters right now, "Keanu," from the comedy team of Michael Keegan Key and Jordan Peele, is a nice chance for us all to catch our breath: Not because it's light on violence—it's quite the opposite, in fact—but because stars Key and Peele are hilariously reeling with the shotgun blasts and stabbings along with us, the movie-going public forced to digest this stuff.

The film's simple premise is that sadsack stoner Rell (Peele), who has just been dumped, finds a new lease on life when a cat named Keanu appears on at his front door. But when Keanu is taken by L.A. gang The 17th Street Blips (whose membership was too hardcore for the Bloods or the Crips), he has to team up with his cousin, uptight family man Clarence (Key) and the pair pose as two stone-cold killers named "Sharktank" and "Tectonic" in order to get the cat back from gang boss Cheddar (Method Man), unaware that the actual assassins they're posing as (also played by Key and Peele) also want Keanu.

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Remember that briefcase from "Pulp Fiction"? This is that but with a baby kitten.

"Keanu" isn't subtle about its influences (there are references to everything from "Fargo" to "Heat" to "Boogie Nights") but it thankfully never totally veers into full-on parody. Peele and co-writer Alex Rubens' script is a well-oiled machine and gags never overstay their welcome, getting impressive mileage out of jokes about the discography of George Michael or the fact that our leads are truly terrified of guns.

Action comedies aren't in short supply these days, but "Keanu" really feels like a throwback to the kind of buddy caper movies Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder used to make. Except here, the joke is that Key and Peele are more Wilder than Pryor. Race is the significant underlying angle of "Keanu" of almost every scene: Early in the film, Rell rags on Clarence for playing George Michael's 'Faith' on his car's stereo instead of rap—only to quickly turn rap down and wave enthusiastically when a cop car appears in the lane next to them; when the duo interrogate Rell's white cornrow-rocking drug dealer (Will Forte), they torture him by breaking his De La Soul and Kool and the Gang records.

Rell and Clarence's insecurity about the authenticity of their suburban blackness and the new personas they have to put on when they infiltrate The Blips is funny but even more than that, it's the kind of nuanced and relevant perspective on racial identify you just don't really see in Hollywood comedies. And that's on top of its smart, tight script and Key and Peele's well-honed bro chemistry. "Keanu" is the kind of high-octane comedy this otherwise dour summer at the movies desperately needed.

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