'Keanu' and the Black Nerd Action Hero | Sojourners

'Keanu' and the Black Nerd Action Hero

Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele have built successful comedy careers out of satirizing nerd culture and, as critic Wesley Morris so aptly put it in a 2015 essay, “locating what’s funny about race without losing what’s disturbing about racism.” When their popular Comedy Central sketch show Key & Peele ended its five-season run last year, fans were disappointed, but bolstered by the hope of larger projects on the horizon. The first of these anticipated follow-ups, the kitten-centric action comedy Keanu, is now in theaters.

A goofy, loving send-up of action movies, Keanu introduces its titular (and adorable) feline star as he escapes a gangland shooting in Los Angeles and winds up on the doorstep of Rell (Peele), a slacker reeling from a breakup. Rell and his minivan-driving, George Michael-loving cousin Clarence (Key) dote on the kitten. When Keanu is stolen from Rell’s apartment, the two men discover he’s been taken by a gang called the Blips (the members are rejects from both the Bloods and the Crips), and descend into LA’s dangerous criminal underworld to get their cat back.

Keanu is really funny, most of the time. The plot can seem a little thin in places, and the driving conceit is pretty silly — the kind of thing that might work better as a sketch than as a full-fledged film. Fortunately, Key and Peele play off of each other so well that the film never totally goes flat, even when the plot seems forced. Some of that humor is situational, and some of it is character-based, particularly with Key’s character awakening his inner, long-suppressed tough guy.

The film also definitely isn’t the darker satire audiences came to expect from later seasons of Key & Peele, though it does touch on themes of racial identity and false perception that have frequently shown up in the duo’s sketches. There are even a couple of moments in Keanu where Peele, co-writer Alex Rubens, and director Peter Atencio seem to consciously steer tense situations in a different direction.

That choice might disappoint some viewers hoping for a more biting, message-driven experience. But hard-hitting commentary isn’t the point of Keanu. Instead, this is Key and Peele taking a break from most of the heavy stuff, and getting back to the nerd-centric comedy they love, using a perspective that is honest to their own personalities, and one that they’ve often said goes under-represented in popular culture: the black nerd.

As two guys who grew up with a limited selection of cultural role models, Key and Peele carved out a space for themselves with their show, and are continuing to do so — and to give guys like them someone to relate to — with Keanu. As Key noted in a recent interview, “If we wanted to be the nerdy black guys who also got to be action heroes, who else was going to write that movie?”

Regardless of whatever stylistic flaws Keanu may have, that perspective, successfully expressed onscreen, is worth noting.