To Hell and Back
Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey
The 1980s gave us two great time travel comedies: 1985's Back to the Future (which I really need to review soon) and 1989's Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. Both have lived on as classics of the form, and while they would seem to tell different stories, they both are essentially focused on the same thing: getting their lead protagonists to find their fated destinies via time travel. In fact, original Bill and Ted were going to travel in a VW Van until someone noted that was too close to the Delorean in Back to the Future, so the producers changed it to a phone booth (having clearly never watched Doctor Who).
In my heart of hearts I've always been a bigger fan of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, having watched it way more times that Back to the Future. There's a kind and sweet quality in the later film missing from the former, a joy of discovery and enjoyment of time travel that's missing from Marty McFly's movie. Bill and Ted revel in time travel, but Marty just wants to get back home. That said, between the films, I much prefer the sequels to Back to the Future, as mediocre as they are, to Bill and Ted's 1991 follow-up, Bogus Journey.
To the credit of the creators, Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey avoids being the same old movie all over again (at least at first blush, anyway). Instead of just sending our heroes on another trip through time, this movie sends through the afterlife, collecting friends to help them defeat evil versions of themselves. This is different from Back to the Future Part II, which basically retreads the first film all over again in quite literal fashion, or Back to the Future Part III which says, "what if the first movie, but in the Wild West?" However, while creativity is (somewhat) on the side of Bogus Journey, a lot of the fun of the original is sucked out. This isn't a soulless film, but it lacks the spark and joy that made the first film such a watchable classic.
In Bogus Journey, Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves), along with their Medieval girlfriends Joanna (Sarah Trigger) and Elizabeth (Annette Azcuy), are trying to get their band, Wyld Stallyns, into the Battle of the Bands so they can win, pay off their debts, and finally get married. They do land a slot, but it's at the end of the night when everyone will be going home, but Bill and Ted see this as just the chance they need to finally make their band a bunch of winners. All they need to do is learn to play, and quick. After celebrating with the Princesses, Bill and Ted propose to them, but they soon get a call later from Joanna and Elizabeth saying that they're breaking up and they never want to see our heroes again. Heartbroken, the boys sit on their couch trying to plot what to do.
As it turns out, that call was from two evil robot versions of Bill and Ted (also played by Winter and Reeves) sent from the future to kill Bill and Ted. They lure the boys out into the desert, in "search" of the girls, and then kill our heroes. This leads our guys on a quest to prevent the evil robots from ruining their band, their lives, and killing the princesses... all they have to do first is escape Hell and, just maybe, battle Death in a game of skill to regain their lives.
To the film's credit it does adopt a similar, sketch-like format for this adventure. The guys go traveling from one skit to another -- the afterlife on Earth, the into Hell, a battle with Death, on to Heaven, and then back to Earth for the climactic Battle of the Bands. It allows for, at times, some madcap hi-jinx from these two lovable idiots, even if, when you take the wide view, the film does have a very similar structure to the first. Yes, the plots are different, and there's not villains for the heroes to fight, but over all it's a similar idea: travel around, collect allies (William Sadler's Death and the very puppety Station, voiced by Tony Cox), and then get to a presentation so they can save their lives and their band. I don't hate that -- it's still more creative in concept than most sequels -- but the formula already starts to feel a little thin here.
In part that's simply because having the guys travel through weird concepts of Heaven and Hell doesn't have the same impact as dropping them into different time periods. We understand the "rules" of reality when it comes to the Wild West, Medieval Europe, Ancient Greece, and on and on, so seeing these guys be anachronisms there is funny. There aren't any consistent rules about Heaven and Hell, not based on reality, so the time the guys spend here has to not only tell us how it works but also give the guys something to do. These are easily the most boring sections because the movie has to spend time world building instead of just being chaotic and silly.
The one bright point in this whole afterlife sequence is Death. William Sadler invests fully in his role as the Grim Reaper and he has such joy in the performance. This, along with the best series of gags in the film as Bill and Ted battle Death in a series of games -- Battleship, Clue, Electronic Football, and on and on -- is just great. It has that energy, that spark, the madcap joy the rest of the afterlife is missing. Without Death this film would be a complete disaster, but instead its just pretty mediocre.
That's not to disparage Winter and Reeves in their roles as Bill/Evil Bill and Ted/Evil Ted. As in the first movie, these guys are having a grand time and work their asses off to sell all the material in front of them. They give the film a lot of joy and charisma and the film nearly works because of it. But there's just not enough meat here, not enough substance to the story or silliness to the meandering skits, and even the leads struggle to make the film interesting.
Frankly, some of the blame has to be laid at the feet of the villain. While the evil robots add some spark (no pun intended), the head villain is Joss Ackland's Chuck De Nomolos and this guy is a total dud. He's angry at the world, mad that the future worships Bill and Ted, two buffoons in his eyes (and he's not wrong) so he wants to change it all. The thing is we never understand why he's mad, what his real plan is after he takes over, or why we should care. He makes a big proclamation at the start of the film, then just fades into the background while the Evil Bill and Ted do all the work (when they're even in the film, which isn't for long). If the film would give us a little more about the villain, show some of his work or put his plans into better fruition (or, hell, after Bill and Ted die, show us a dystopian version of the future) it would give us some perspective and actually add weight to Bill and Ted's quest.
But then, maybe having a villain in this piece wasn't the right call at all. The more time the film has to pull away from Bill and Ted, giving us guys to fight and villains to defeat, is less time hanging out with these two laid-back bros. The first film didn't need a villain, and it didn't need to illustrate the necessity for these two guys to get their band up off the ground; it was just silly and understood that. These two aren't saviors of the world, they can;t even tie their own shoes without being astounded by the act, so the humor is that someone they luck into writing a song that changes the future for the better. The second you start trying to elaborate on that, though, you ruin the gag. The villain just sucks the silliness away, grounding a future that doesn't need to be grounded. It doesn't work.
Of course, then, as if to balance that out, the film goes over-the-top with its climax, trying to out do the big presentation from the first film, but it slides right off into silly cheese. The climax misses the delicate balance the first film had, making everything about this film seem ridiculous. The tone is all wrong and it makes the final sequence, frankly, the worst part of the film right when it needed to be the best.
Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey is a complete mess. While I've watched it a few times over the years (mostly for Sadler's Death) I don't hold it anywhere near in the same regard as the first film. Excellent Adventure was, in the words of the heroes, a "most triumphant" time. But Bogus Journey lives up to its title -- it is, sadly, pretty bogus indeed.