3.5 out of 5 stars

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1988) was an unexpected hit (grossing $40M from a $6.5M budget) and kept growing in popularity thanks to its home video afterlife. A sequel was all but guaranteed, with initial ideas revolving around best-friends Bill S. Preston Esq. (Alex Winter) and Ted ‘Theodore’ Logan (Keanu Reeves) having to now pass their English exam, resulting in an adventure where they somehow enter famous stories like Romeo & Juliet and Tom Sawyer. It’s hard to imagine how to make that idea work, so luckily writers Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon instead settled on a premise best summarised by its working title: Bill & Ted Go to Hell.

Excellent Adventure’s director, Stephen Herek, didn’t want to return for a sequel, claiming the screenplay was “almost a parody of a movie that was already a parody”, so filmmaker Peter Hewitt was hired on the strength of his short film The Candy Show (1989). It was a big vote of confidence in the Englishman’s abilities, as Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (as it was retitled over concerns for the word ‘Hell’ appearing in a comedy), was his first feature-length movie. Hewitt also cameos as the smoker in the hardware store, whom Death (William Sadler) mentions he’ll see “real soon.”

The joy of Bogus Journey is how it broadly follows the template of its predecessor, with Bill and Ted going on a crazy adventure to achieve a foundational part of their musical destiny—only now it’s winning a Battle of the Bands contest instead of passing a History test. It would’ve been understandable to simply tell another time-travel story, particularly considering the iconography of their phone booth, but the writers went in an entirely different direction. Indeed, there’s extremely limited use of time-travel and the iconic booth barely even appears!

Unlike Excellent Adventure, there’s also a more prominent villain trying to thwart Bill and Ted’s fate this time: De Nomolos (Joss Ackland), the saturnine leader of a 27th-century opposition movement to the utopia Bill and Ted’s music ushered in. The only reason alluded to is that De Nomolos thinks the two teens are morons society’s wrong to hold in such high regard, so he sends two lifelike robots (‘Evil Bill’ and ‘Evil Ted’) into the past to sabotage their critical Battle of the Bands triumph and instead promote a sinister message in order to change history.

It’s a solid setup, which allows for Winter and Reeves to play robotic versions of themselves, who are equally immature but more inclined to grope their princess girlfriends and try to squash cats. Bogus Journey could have focused on a story about malevolent robots destroying Bill and Ted’s lives and reputations, but the story takes a more expansive path once the Evil robots succeed in killing their human counterparts. Then the script’s fantastical elements truly come to the fore, with Bill and Ted now trapped on Earth as ghosts, then ‘exorcised’ after being mistaken for malevolent spirits, before arriving in Hell and having to escape this underworld by defeating Death himself… in games of Battleships, Twister, and Cluedo.

Wacky and creative is the name of the game with Bogus Journey, as it feels like a live-action cartoon and has similar logic. Bill and Ted even have ‘wooshing’ sounds added to their jerky movements at times, to go alongside their famous ‘air guitar’ stings. The vivid colours and sense of playful innocence help propel things along nicely, but there are surprising moments of inventiveness along the way. That’s most evident during the sequences in Hell, which is interestingly depicted as a maze of metal corridors its impossible to stand up straight inside, with each room representing a personal torture. Bill faces an eternity having to kiss his decrepit Granny (played by Winter himself in old lady make-up), while Ted is chased by a creepy Easter Bunny for stealing his younger brother’s Easter egg basket. It’s either that or they might both have to do pushups in military school forever.

Comedically, Bill and Ted are as lovably guileless as ever, although tolerances will vary on their airhead shtick and carefree attitude. Winter and Reeves slip into the roles again perfectly, and I’d argue the sequel’s versions of Bill and Ted are more likeable the second time around. Reeves is noticeably more confident as an actor here, as the film was released on the cusp of his wider stardom around the time Point Break (1991) and My Own Private Idaho (1991) were released, leading to his bigger successes with Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) and Speed (1994).

It’s also fair to say the character of Death gives Bogus Journey added dimension, as William Sadler (Die Hard 2) brings a unique approach to the role with his strong Czechoslovakian accent (based on his stage actor friend Jan Tříska) and a sour demeanour that gradually softens. It’s a clever way to signify the positive effect Bill and Ted have on those they meet (even the Grim Reaper himself), as he’s soon keen to receive praise from the happy-go-lucky duo and becomes part of their Wyld Stallyns band by the end. There’s little wonder Sadler was asked to reprise his role for the belated sequel, Bill & Ted Face the Music (2020), even if he had much less to do there.

While Bogus Journey wasn’t as well-received as Excellent Adventure by critics, or as commercially successful (grossing $38M natively, against a larger budget of $20M), it’s grown in stature over the decades. There’s no denying the first movie gets to the heart of these charming characters better, and its time-travel premise delivers a neater story, but Bogus Journey is one of the few comedy sequels that isn’t a lazy rehash. It uses its characters as a means to explore bigger, wilder, more imaginative concepts. And it had the budget to achieve its goal, even if some of the VFX for the Heaven and Hell now look dated and unconvincing because of bad matte paintings. But the designs and ideas haven’t aged much, particularly the zaniness of having two big-bottomed aliens known as Station merge into one larger creature who’s the smartest scientist in the galaxy.

Downsides of the sequel certainly exist. Rufus (George Carlin) was a memorable guide in Excellent Adventure, but his role in the sequel isn’t as good, especially after an opening action sequence suggesting he’ll be more involved. And while it’s great to have a larger-than-life villain for Bill and Ted to contend with, De Nomolos (which is co-writer Ed Solomon’s name spelled backwards) is a wasted opportunity. Joss Ackland apparently hated working on the film and spoke of his regret about taking part many years later, but perhaps his disdain stemmed from how unsubstantial his character is. There’s an exciting setup for De Nomolos as the fascist embodiment of an elderly neighbour yelling for the kids next door to keep their music down, but he’s mostly absent until the climax… and then gets defeated far too easily.

It’s certainly a shame Bogus Journey wasn’t a bigger hit at in 1991, as we might have got at least one more adventure before Keanu Reeves moved on with his career in Hollywood. However, it did end the story in a manner that seemed conclusive at the time, with Bill and Ted finally learning to play guitar and performing an incredible song on stage (“God Gave Rock n’ Roll To You” by Kiss), as they’re broadcast on live TV to the entire world.

The end credits of newspaper and magazine front pages also revealed how Wyld Stallyns impacted culture and became bigger than The Beatles, explaining the core premise of how two tone deaf idiots might become the catalyst for global unity and peace. So the emergence of a sequel nearly three decades later wasn’t necessary, and proved to be more of a well-meaning curio than something that deserved to exist. However, maybe in another universe, the 1990s were littered with Bill and Ted sequels where they rocketed to alien planets, got sucked into works of fiction, and did other extraordinary things. It’s a shame Keanu Reeves got so famous, in a way. Bogus, dude.

USA • UK | 1991 | 93 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

frame rated divider retrospective

Cast & Crew

director: Pete Hewitt.
writers: Chris Matheson & Ed Solomon.
starring: Keanu Reeves, Alex Winter, William Sadler, Joss Ackland, George Carlin, Pam Grier, Hal Landlon Jr., Chelcie Ross & Amy Stock-Poynton.