The Grim Reaper. Evil robot duplicates from the future. The Easter bunny. A seven-foot tall gestalt-entity scientist from Mars. The late George Carlin in a zip-up Pam Grier costume. Good robot duplicates assembled from vacuum cleaner parts. “Sir James Martin of Faith No More”. And, of course, killing off the lead characters by the close of the first act.
No, Bill And Ted’s Bogus Journey isn’t your typical big-budget follow-up to a good-natured sleeper blockbuster hit about time-travelling high-school metalhead slackers. And it’s all the richer for it.
In following up 1989’s Excellent Adventure, writers Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon eschewed the obvious route of sending their heroes off for yet more time-travel shenanigans – instead plucking all manner of weirdness from their collective imaginations in sending the pair to a separate dimension entirely: the afterlife.
The success of the first film afforded Bogus Journey a budget of $20m, twice as large as Excellent Adventure, and it’s put to good use. In a pre-CGI era, extensive use of prosthetics and puppetry bring a variety of creations to life, as well as some terrific split screen and double work whenever the heroes have to share the frame with their robot duplicates.
The look and feel of the film sits almost in a genre all of its own. The time-travel elements mean it’s technically a sci-fi comedy, but one that also draws heavily on fantasy of the preceding decade, most notably when it comes to the particularly Henson-esque alien “Station”.
The darker tone throughout – there’s an especially grim sense of foreboding even before the guys are offed, while the climactic scene itself is underscored by a fantastically unnerving Megadeth soundtrack – means that it’s far less of an out-and-out comedy than its predecessor (there’s nothing, for example, to match Napoleon at the water park). But it’d be a mistake to say it’s not funny at all.
The script still shines with some great dialogue throughout (“Ted? If we die, you can have my Megadeth collection.” “But dude, we’re already dead!” “Oh. (beat) Well then they’re yours, dude!”), and having been hamstrung throughout by the unforgiving role of Ted’s mean father, actor Hal Landon comes close to stealing the entire show with an uncanny Keanu impersonation when playing a version of his character possessed by Ted’s ghost.
But the particular comedic masterstroke, of course, is William Sadler’s unforgettable portrayal of Death. Introduced as a deliberate and obvious parody of The Seventh Seal, there’s a hint that all will be less than serious the moment our heroes escape him via the tried and tested “Melvin”; but it’s around the midway point that his presence makes for the film’s most memorable scene.
Challenged to “a game” in order that Bill and Ted might win their freedom, he suffers humiliating defeat after humiliating defeat at such distinctly un-philosophical pursuits as Battleships, Cluedo and Twister, childishly demanding each time that his opponents give him a chance to even up the scores.
If anything, though, Sadler shines even more once the defeated Reaper joins forces with Bill and Ted to try and help them defeat their duplicates. Whether it’s dressing up as a woman to gain an audience with God, casually remarking “See you real soon” to a passing smoker or regaling San Dimas with his very own “Reaper Rap”, just about every laugh-out-loud moment in the second half comes from Death, and Sadler – who also makes an appearance sans makeup as the stereotypically posh English father in the closing scenes – has an absolute ball. He even gets the funniest of the lovely mock newspaper and magazine covers that flash by through the opening credits: “REAPER WINS INDY 500: ‘I didn’t know I could run that fast.’”
Crucially, though, what really makes Bogus Journey work is that in addition to all the humour and weirdness, it’s got an abundance of charm.
Bill and Ted themselves are effortlessly likeable characters, partly down to the performances of the leads, and partly down to the optimistic view of the world they continuously hold. It’s a mistake simply to call them “surfer dudes” or “brainless slackers” or anything like that – it’s not that they’re stupid, it’s just that they look at everything through a slightly different filter.
Consider their distinctive speech patterns, too. Again, it’s not just California “valley” speak, and it doesn’t just involve throwing “dude” or “radical” into every sentence. What their own, meticulously constructed dialogue reveals about B&T is a shared attempt to better themselves – you can almost imagine them being in possession of “word a day” toilet paper, so liberal are they with throwing around synonyms for “good” and “bad”.
The boys aren’t lazy, by any means. They just have their priorities skewed a certain way. But as driven by their goal of becoming world-beating rock musicians (despite not yet knowing how to play) as they are, they never come across as self-obsessed. They’re good people. And it makes them good heroes.
It’s this reason, one suspects, why the idea of a future third film hasn’t been greeted by the same sort of widespread revulsion as most other “delayed sequel” notions.
The final and undeniably “most triumphant” ending feels at the time like a perfect capstone to the Wyld Stallyns’ tale, not least as the credits sequence goes on to map out the events that lead to their world domination. But it’s hard to deny that seeing Reeves and Winter back in these roles would give a joyously nostalgic glow, so long as the quality of script and level of imagination matched up to this freewheeling, inventive masterpiece.