Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele are best known for creating short, silly sketches that air on their Comedy Central show, “Key and Peele.” They have created viral shorts like “Substitute Teacher” and “East/West College Bowl” since 2012, but now they have endeavored to create a feature-length film, “Keanu,” which debuted Friday.
“Keanu” follows Rell (Peele) and Clarence (Key), two friends who live in the suburbs, as they try to win back Rell’s beloved kitten, Keanu. Early on in the movie, the two learn that Keanu has been stolen by the Blips, a group of gangsters led by Cheddar (Method Man), but Rell is determined to rescue Keanu, so the two try to blend in with this suspicious crowd with whom they share no similarities.
The film is a mix of action and comedy, like most of the sketches from their show. Key and Peele, who produced the movie, wanted to celebrate the action films of their youth in the 1980s and ‘90s, which incorporate “lots and lots of laughs.”
“Guys like Keegan and I have never been the leads of an action movie,” Peele said in a conference call interview with The Daily Free Press. “So ‘Keanu’ is kind of a symbol for Key and Peele in this movie, with us being able to step into this genre that we wouldn’t have been in if we didn’t write it.”
The movie’s characters reflect Key and Peele’s desire to star in action films — one of the opening scenes shows the two men in a car, raving about the Liam Neeson movie they just saw.
“Rell and Clarence get to enter this high-stakes world they dream about when they watch Liam Neeson’s films,” Peele said. “That’s very similar to Keegan and myself in real life.”
Key said even though it is an action film, the main character is a kitten because “everybody loves a kitten.” They chose to name the cat Keanu partly because Keanu Reeves is also an action star known around the world, and the shared name could draw in a bigger audience.
“Our hope is that when you see that name, that’s the best foot forward and then you get to learn about the comedy of Key and Peele once you step through the door,” Key said.
Like some of the comedy duo’s sketches, “Keanu” acts as a social commentary on race and the stereotypical “gangster life.” The comedians like to explore these topics because, as Key put it, they write “based on how [they] see the world.”
“The reason we are drawn to the topics of race and culture and masculinity often is because it’s fertile ground to be noodled around with,” Peele said. “You need somebody to take those things on, and when we first started the show, we realized that was part of our purpose and our voice.”
Jason Mitchell plays Bud, one of the members of the Blips who Clarence and Rell work with on their quest for Keanu. Mitchell starred in “Straight Outta Compton” last summer as Eazy-E, but he said he does not want to be typecast as an actor who only plays gangsters.
“I want people to see that I’m really a contender no matter what form it might come in, because even though I do play two different gangster roles, one of them is all about comedy and the other one is all about full-blown drama,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell jumped on board when he heard about “Keanu,” and he said it’s different than his past films because of the tight-knit nature of the cast and crew.
“Peter Atencio and Jordan and Keegan have a bond because they’ve been working together for so long on ‘Key and Peele,'” Mitchell said. “It’s such a passion project for these guys, so coming onto it has just been a pleasure.”
Key and Peele played a large role in the casting process to make sure “Keanu” had just the right tone. They cast a variety of dramatic and comedic actors so that the film would not sway too heavily in one direction.
“It was extremely important to us as the producers to find a mixture of people who could handle the humor of the film without winking at it, without being conscious of it,” Key said.
Since Key and Peele are “comedians first and foremost,” they wanted to make sure that, above all, the audience will laugh while watching “Keanu.”
“Our message is simple,” Peele said. “Sometimes, you want to walk into the movie theater, forget the rest of the world, forget the problems of your life, go have a crazy time with Key and Peele, see some fun violence, see some cute kittens and see some ridiculous comedy.”
“Keanu” will be released April 29 in theaters nationwide.