Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The best Bill & Ted movie is the one that took them on a Bogus Journey to hell and back

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Screenshot: Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey

Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: With Coming 2 America now available to rent from home, we’re offering our own belated sequel to a past Watch This theme and singing the praises of more good comedy sequels. 

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Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991)

When Bill & Ted Face The Music was released last year to general critic and fan enthusiasm, it represented at least two anomalies at once: a decades-later comedy sequel that lots of people actually liked and a satisfying conclusion to the even-rarer comedy trilogy. But defying conventional wisdom has been part of the whole deal with this series since Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure became an unexpected hit in 1989. Given that the film squeaked in at the end of the ’80s, it makes sense that it would be followed by the kind of quickie, low-rent sequel that helped define that decade (and comedy sequels in general). But if the turnover was indeed fast (a cash-in second installment arrived just two years after the original), the creative returns were undiminished: Somehow, the best Bill & Ted movie is the second one.

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey almost sounds like a parody of a sequel, starting with the title swapping in one synonym and one antonym. The film certainly lacks the loopy purity of its predecessor, where two metalhead slackers must travel through time to gain historical knowledge, pass their history exam, and preserve a future where their bumbling two-man rock band, Wyld Stallyns, saves humankind. On one level, Bogus Journey offers more of the same, as a future terrorist sends robot doubles of Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves) back in time to destroy them and finish off Wyld Stallyns once and for all. (Amusingly, despite all the fuss, Bill and Ted remain the weak links in their own band; the medieval princesses they courted in the first film have grown into stronger musicians.) But in execution, Bogus Journey doesn’t rehash the original so much as one-up it.

The first major innovation in the screenplay by Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson is that the evil robots succeed: Relatively early on, Bill and Ted are thrown off a cliff and killed. This sends them to meet Death (William Sadler), eventually leading to a celebrated parody of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal where instead of playing chess with Death, the boys challenge him to a series of contemporary board and party games. That’s just one sequence, though, in a plot that involves the duo visiting both heaven and hell; possessing the body of Ted’s father from the great beyond; and befriending a modular alien named Station, among other metaphysical misadventures. (The original, less cheerful title: Bill & Ted Go To Hell.)

This all has a certain stoner-comedy logic, but of course the Bill & Ted movies don’t actually involve mind-altering substances. Despite a few outdated bits of dialogue, they have an innocence that blurs the line between “teenage” and “boy”—like a sweet-natured flip side to the hilarious adult-tween aggression of Step Brothers. That’s true of all three Bill & Ted films; Bogus Journey stands out specifically because of its comedy, which is weirder, funnier, and more inventive than its siblings on either side. Deserved attention has been paid to Sadler’s Death, in possession of enough dour ego to keep challenging Bill and Ted to more games as his losses mount—a comedic gift that keeps on giving. But he’s not all the movie has to offer. Reeves and Winter are once again very funny, both as themselves and their malevolent robotic counterparts, and the movie deals with their sort-of demise with lightly mordant wit. Special shout-out to Winter for playing his character’s overly affectionate grandmother in Bill’s personal vision of hell; the movie is surprisingly committed to visualizing its jokes, rather than just relying on its stars’ slangy dialogue.

At times, the conceptual whimsy of Bogus Journey feels compatible with the work of innovative music-video directors like Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze, whose careers were starting up around this period. Certain details like Station the two-part Martian, a character perhaps more odd than truly funny, now feel like an inflection point between the dopiness of so many ’80s youthsploitation comedies and the scrappier alternative weirdness emerging in the ’90s. All three Bill & Ted movies ride that Spinal Tap-coined line between the clever and the stupid. Bogus Journey does it with the most triumphant confidence in its high-low trash-culture fusion.

Availability: Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey is currently streaming on HBO Max. It’s also available to rent or purchase through Amazon, Google, Apple, YouTube, Fandango Now, Redbox, AMC On Demand, DirecTV, and VUDU.

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