Many years ago, a friend argued that Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey was better than the first movie. Now, other than The Godfather, it’s generally accepted that sequels are never better, but we’ve seen that rule broken many times since. And Bill & Ted did it in 1991, which is especially surprising for an early ’90s movie to beat an ’80s one. Having watched the two movies again, I must concede that the sequel is better than Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.
The original film was huge; it affected teen slang, it inspired Wayne’s World, and it catapulted Keanu Reeves’s career- which began memorably with River’s Edge– into super-stardom. If you watch closely, you can see him act in this one; it’s long before he became the great stone face with the great gravelly voice. The first movie is a blast, with the amusing premise that these two Spicoli-esque dolts who can’t play guitar will create a rock band that will spread harmony throughout the world. It all starts when we learn they have to pass History or be expelled, and a trench-coated time traveler played by none other than George Carlin shows up in a phone booth- a cute nod to “Doctor Who”- to tell them he has to help them, so they can save the world. Sure, the time travel is as convoluted as the Terminator (full review) and not as well-planned as Back to the Future, but boy do they have fun with it. By the end of the movie, they’ll be saying “hey, if we go back in time and put the key to the jail in this flowerpot…” and it will magically appear. They end up kidnapping everyone from So-crates to Napoleon to Dr. Sigmund Frood.
It’s all very cartoonish, with their air guitar gestures making music on the soundtrack, but it’s infectious because they are good-hearted doofuses who seriously believe that all we need to do is “Be Excellent to One Another, and Party On.” They aren’t cocky smart-asses like Ferris, too cool for their own good, so we want them to stumble into greatness. And they do. But the sequel manages this same mood and ups the ante with a ridiculous time travel plot where George Carlin’s old gym teacher- Galactic Sit-Up Champion and all-around pismire De Nomolos- creates Evil Robot Bill & Ted’s to kill the originals, ruin the band Wyld Stallyns, and rob Earth of its peaceful, most excellent future.
The robots trick the boys by pretending to be their future selves- which worked in the first picture- and drag them to the desert crag where the “Star Trek” episode where Kirk fights some lizard dude was filmed. I know this because they watch it on TV before it happens, and it’s hilarious when you recognize the same location. Amazingly, the infectious joy and idiocy of Bill & Ted, so perfectly played by Keanu and Alex Winters, doesn’t just hold up for a second film, but even works better. Because they are in fact, dead. And they goof around as ghosts, find out that Hell is exactly like their heavy metal album covers despite their denials, and best of all, the beat Death in a marathon game of Battleship, Clue, and Twister. Because like, they don’t know how to play chess, dude.
William Sadler- one of our best character actors- plays Death and steals every damn scene, even when he’s in the background. Along with Joss Ackland as De Nomolos- he was the bad guy from Lethal Weapon 2 claiming “diplomatic immunity!” after he shoots Riggs- and George Carlin as the restrained Rufus, the small roles really support these goofballs. That, and the writing is just plain clever; hell is truly hellish, and damn funny. You spend eternity trapped in your least favorite moment, which for Ted is having to kiss his warty grandmother, while Bill is pursued by a damn creepy Easter bunny. And Death is even funnier if you’ve seen The Seventh Seal, because here he cheats at Clue! If you went in expecting merely lowbrow humor, air guitar with musical effects, and cries of “bogus!” you get many surprises.
There are so many little touches, like Ben Franklin and Alfred Einstein playing charades in heaven; the boys falling down so deep a hole to hell that they play 20 questions (are you a tank!?) and once again, having strange things be afoot at the Circle K again. Another thing- any time they turn their heads, there’s a little “whip” noise, which gets funnier as the movie goes on. I think what I like most is that like Fast Times at Ridgemont High, the movie remembers that people we consider “cool” now, like Spicoli, were not popular in high school, but outcasts. As much as I like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the more I watch it, the more I side with his sister, and want him to fail. But I’m always on Bill & Ted’s side, no matter how stupid they are, because they hate gym and aren’t cruel to anybody, except maybe the Grim Reaper. They melvin him, after all.
They were wise to never dip into the well a third time, but Mike Myers and Dana Carvey sort of ruined any chances of that with their “Wayne’s World” skits on Saturday Night Live, which were never anything but shallow ripoffs, with Wayne making snide asides. I laughed too, but it always felt like Myer’s reliving high school with wish fulfillment. Bill & Ted don’t believe that they’re great, but Wayne secretly wishes he could save humanity with the power of rock ‘n roll, doesn’t he? Not to slam on them too much, they were amusing enough, and they show how much influence these movies really had. And amazingly enough, if you go back to rewatch them, you’ll find that Bogus Journey has staying power, and the first movie is still fun, but in the end, it was just a launching pad for the great sequel. How often does that happen?