Action Figures
by Nick Pinkerton

Dir. Peter Atencio, U.S., Warner Bros.

The words “action” and “comedy” are perfectly appealing in their own right, but when combined they become one of the most dispiriting phrases in the English language. This is not to say that the two genres should be or ever have been necessarily distinct: Howard Hawks, for one, made some pretty sterling movies that could be described as “action-comedies,” and Freebie and the Bean is a fine example of the 1970s penchant for combining wisecracks and stunt-driving gymnastics. But the phrase has come to imply something else in the thirty-odd years since Ghostbusters inflated the dialogue comedy to the scale of the blockbuster, birthing a generation of Stay Puft–sized gelatinous monstrosities. Just look for the big budget “action comedy” if you want to find the low point of any contemporary comic actor’s career, be it Will Ferrell (Land of the Lost), Adam Sandler (Pixels), or Ben Stiller (most of it, but especially The Watch). Swanky CGI and four-quadrant calculation are surefire laughter-killers, and trying to keep a comic buzz going through a shock-and-awe set-piece is like trying to make love with “Weird Al” Yankovic on the hi-fi—the two just aren’t complementary.

The action-comedy Keanu is the multiplex coming-out for the television sketch team of Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele—usually referred to simply as Key and Peele, credited on the film’s poster as being possessed of “visionary minds,” and very much the front-and-center creative presences here. Key and Peele star together as longtime friends Clarence and Rell, while Peele is credited with the script alongside Alex Rubens who, like director Peter Atencio, has worked on the duo’s Comedy Central show Key & Peele, the extended universe of which the movie belongs. (Leaving a screening of a Liam Neeson action movie, Substitute Teacher, Clarence and Rell refer to the actor as “Liam Neesons,” a pronunciation popularized by their recurring action-buff valet parking attendant characters on the show.)

Key and Peele’s first star vehicle is less “visionary” than shrewd, designed with a clear understanding of two things: 1) action-comedies seem to be popular, and 2) action-comedies are a little bit stupid. The gunfire, for the most part, is isolated at either end of the movie, which begins with two trained assassins singlehandedly shooting up the entire population of a drug lab in a deconsecrated Catholic church while a kitten scampers amid the chaos (presumably a homage to the birth of the baby bird in The Thin Red Line), and concludes with another gangland showdown beginning at a kingpin’s lair à la Tony Montana. Sandwiched in-between is a film more interested in the details of line readings than spectacle, which derives most of its laughs from code-switching and the resulting incongruities, as Clarence and Rell are forced to head-spinningly shift registers between their customary deracinated middle-class language and the gang-banger slang of the black criminal underclass.

To back up a bit: Clarence (Key) is a happily married buppie with a propensity for Dockers whose work involves leading team-building exercises for corporate entities and whose idea of blowing off steam is a sing-along with George Michael in the minivan; Rell (Peele) is his layabout, bong-suckling friend who doesn’t have any discernible purpose in life until a precious tabby kitten appears on his doorstep one day. Snapped from a post-breakup gloom, Rell devotes himself entirely to the worship of his new pet, christened “Keanu”—his main cultural intake appears to be the American action movie canon played on repeat, and he poses little Keanu in diorama vignettes from various favorites. The misadventures begin when the guys come back from the movies to find Rell’s apartment ransacked and Keanu missing, and they have to shake down neighborhood drug dealer, Hulka (Will Forte, wearing white boy cornrows and going into conniptions when his collection of vinyl hip-hop is threatened). This leads them to Hot Party Vixens, a mop-and-bucket strip club with an unfortunate acronym which serves as the base of operations for drug kingpin Cheddar (Method Man), who sure enough has Keanu—renamed “New Jack”—and whose operation Clarence and Rell need to infiltrate if they’re going to win the cat back.

Rolling into HPV, Rell warns Clarence that they need to harden themselves up in look and inflection, helpfully telling his partner, “You sound like Richard Pryor doing an impression of a white guy.” From the moment that they go undercover, the film becomes a brisk-moving game of cover-up through improvisatory teamwork—the area where Key and Peele excel—with either Clarence or Rell, put in charge of a crew by Cheddar, leaving themselves open to exposure time and again, then scrambling to cover up their slips with mean-mug one-upmanship or convoluted explanations. Clarence, who has a tendency to manufacture his own surreal ’hood argot (“Wordness to the turdness,” “Word to Big Bird”), is caught out with “Faith” on his iPod, and has to reclaim his cred by explaining the breakup of Wham! as a homicide and relating “Father Figure” to a van full of orphaned gangstas (Darrell Britt-Gibson, Jason Mitchell, and Jamar Malachi Neighbors, doing slyly effective ensemble work).Often the belabored set pieces—particularly a hallucination sequence—are less funny than casually tossed off bits of linguistic business, like a hollered “You’re more than welcome, nigga.” (Even when Clarence and Rell are stomping around with their oversized thug voices, they remember their manners.)

This low comedy, then, touches on a few highfalutin ideas—masculinity as performance for one, racial identity as a social construction for another. To one degree or another these things have been a part of Key and Peele’s comedy since their MADtv days; both of them come from biracial families—as, for that matter, does Keanu Reeves, and Zadie Smith, who wrote of the duo’s “chameleon comedy” in the pages of The New Yorker. Though Keanu’s movie-movie gun-fu opening makes it clear that any resemblance between the film’s Los Angeles and the actual American city is strictly coincidental, it builds gags around recognizable racial and social schisms. This doesn’t just make it smarter than recent action-comedy offerings like Ride Along and Let’s Be Cops—in which Key played a tatted-up Mexican thug-lifer—it helps to make it quite a bit funnier, giving it more material to work with. This puts Keanu well ahead of contemporary movies that would have us believe the American scene is defined by a leveled-out beige uniformity, though the movie gives a wide berth to the sort of shit-stirring that might sour the public goodwill—when, in the film’s climax, the African-American cast of characters are assembled on Clarence’s front yard and surrounded by a largely white police force, we breeze right past any disturbing reference to recent events.

Keanu is a sure thing, a low-stakes bet—a custom-fit for its stars’ known-quantity talents (Key’s explosive, bandy-limbed physicality; Peele’s capacity to turn on a dime from grudging and suspicious to radiantly open) that strategically utilizes established Things That Audiences Like: squib-popping slapstick, Anna Faris, kittens, etc. To a degree, this crowd-pleasing caution is understandable. Key is 45, Peele 37. They didn’t arrive overnight to their current level of fame and are probably none too eager to risk the stigma of a big-screen flop, and know all too well what happens to comedians—even the white ones—who tempt the public’s ire, or just plain get too weird. (See for reference Olsen and Johnson, Chris Elliott.)

As with boxing, the scorecard will necessarily vary according to the spectator, but my tally in watching Keanu came to maybe six proper guffaws and a nice smattering of dedicated chuckles, a not half-bad haul for a screen comedy in an age dominated by Kevin Hart and the acolytes of Judd Apatow. (Key and Peele, dispiritingly, are reported to have a collaboration with the latter in the offing.) The film reconfirms what anyone who’s watched Key & Peele already knows—that they have fine-tuned their almost symbiotic double-act into an elite level of precision—and via cinematography that, for the most part, looks like it might’ve blown up from a television or laptop screen. (There is at least one visual gag that justifies the widescreen, involving an unexpected backflip.) But after watching Key and Peele’s film, I’m not entirely clear if they’re interested in movies as a medium unto themselves, or as a potential ancillary revenue stream to their TV day jobs. It’s not visionary as advertised, but roundly competent—and I’m afraid that’s rare enough.