While there have been way too many unnecessary sequels produced since the dawning of film, “Robin’s Underrated Gems” is always happy to champion underrated sequels that have never gotten the credit they deserve, such as Psycho II, 2010 and Gremlins 2: The New Batch. Now, I’m proud to add Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey to the list, which is only appropriate since Keanu Reeves has officially confirmed this week that a third Bill & Ted movie is on the way. For whatever reason, this sequel has never really achieved the popularity and cult classic status of its predecessor, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and opened to mixed reviews when it was released in 1991. However, in some ways, I actually consider Bogus Journey to be the superior film. I think one of the main reasons this sequel is better might be the same reason it did not achieve the original’s success: it does not decide to simply repeat the same formula. I’m sure that when they decided to make a sequel to Excellent Adventure, there was temptation to do another movie where Bill and Ted went travelling through time, but Bogus Journey is a lot more ambitious than that. When the film was originally released, I have memories of some of my fellow Bill & Ted fans complaining that this sequel was just too wacky and “out there”. However, I personally think that is one of the movie’s biggest strengths of and I greatly admire its willingness to try anything. While many people would be tempted to write Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey off as a dumb brainless comedy, I think it’s one of those comedies which only pretends to be stupid and is remarkably clever in its stupidity.
Bogus Journey opens in a utopian future where Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves) are viewed as the most important figures in the history of mankind and the music from their heavy metal band, Wyld Stallyns, has brought peace and harmony to the universe. However, an old curmudgeon named De Nomolos (Joss Ackland) is sick of this happy existence and wants to rewrite history in order to create a world where he rules over everything with fear and discipline. His plan involves sending evil robot versions of Bill and Ted back in time to present-day San Dimas, California, where they will murder the real Bill and Ted and take over their lives, preventing them from changing the course of history with their Wyld Stallyns music and paving the way to De Nomolos taking over the world. Bill and Ted are killed off rather easily by their robot counterparts and have an encounter with Death himself, the Grim Reaper (William Sadler), who says they must challenge him to a contest for their souls if they want any chance of leaving the afterlife. Bill and Ted escape from the Reaper at first, but soon find themselves embarked on a truly bogus journey that literally sends them to Hell and back. They even make a little detour to Heaven in order to recruit an alien scientist named Station, who can build good robot versions of themselves to defeat the evil robots. I must say, out of all the interpretations of Hell I’ve ever seen depicted on film, the version in Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey is still my personal favourite (“Whoa, this is not what I expected this place to look like at all. We got totally lied to by our album covers”). Bill and Ted get sentenced by Satan to live in their own personal Hell, which involves them being forced to relive some terrifying repressed childhood memories. I have to admit that the scene with Bill’s grandmother really creeped me out of me when I was a kid!
Now, I’m not going to deny that Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey is incredibly silly and makes their time-travelling adventure in Excellent Adventure look realistic and sophisticated by comparison. But like I said before, I’ve always believed that the Bill & Ted movies are actually very smart and clever comedies that only look stupid on the surface. When done well, I’m a big fan of the “smart stupid comedy” sub-genre, which was essentially popularized by the trio of Jerry & David Zucker and Pat Abrahams when they made Airplane!. While the gags and dialogue in these films are often ridiculously dumb, it actually takes an awful lot of wit and effort to dream up deliberately stupid gags that still manage to be hysterically funny. I’ve often ranted about the so-called “comedies” by the team of Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer (Epic Movie, Meet the Spartans, etc.) which can be classified as “lazy dumb” instead of “clever dumb” as they just throw a bunch of random stupid gags at the screen that don’t require much thought and often wind up being painfully unfunny. The screenwriting team of the Bill & Ted movies, Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon (whose name spelled backwards is “De Nomolos”), get a lot of mileage out of the idea that Bill and Ted are two of the dumbest human beings of all time, and their dialogue together is often so stupid that it circles all the way around and becomes brilliant. As an example, look at this exchange they have together in Hell:
Bill: If I die, you can have my Megadeth collection.
Ted: But, dude, we’re already dead!
Bill: Oh. Well, then they’re yours, dude.
Bogus Journey contains a great deal of hilarious gags that are much more clever and intelligent than you would think, and manage to appeal to different audiences on different levels. The standout sequence has to be when Bill and Ted challenge Death to a game of Battleship for their souls. I originally saw this film when I was twelve years old and thought this scene was funny, but I obviously had NO IDEA that it was an intended as parody of the famous sequence in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, where a medieval knight plays a game of chess with Death for his soul. Of course, that realization only makes the scene ten times funnier when I watch it today, especially when you consider that the main target audience for this film are probably not Ingmar Bergman fans. I don’t care what anybody else says, this entire sequence is pure comedic gold!
It goes without saying that Keanu Reeves’ acting career has been the object of a lot of ridicule over the years, some of it deserved and some not. It’s obvious that achieving stardom by playing such a dim-witted surfer dude like Ted made it hard for some people to take him seriously when he decided to become a legitimate dramatic actor. However, even if you are Keanu Reeves’ biggest critic, you cannot deny that he is totally in his element here and is pitch-perfect in the role. He and Alex Winter just have terrific chemistry together and you cannot imagine any other actors playing Bill and Ted. However, the real scene-stealing performance in Bogus Journey is provided by William Sadler as the Grim Reaper. While most of Sadler’s career has been spent playing action movie villains or serious dramatic roles, his brilliant portrayal of Death makes one wonder why he has never gotten more comedic work. If the movie had focused entirely on Bill and Ted, it might have worn itself a little thin after awhile, but having Death accompany them on their journey provides them a great comedic foil to play off of and Sadler’s embittered interpretation of the character provides some of the biggest laughs in the film. All in all, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey is a work of great visual invention as its depictions of Heaven and Hell look terrific, and if there’s one thing you can’t accuse this sequel of, it’s being lazy. Some fans thought that sending Bill and Ted to Heaven and Hell might have been “jumping the shark”, but I give the filmmakers all the credit in the world for trying something different and not simply repeating the same formula. Not everything in the film works, of course, but it does conclude with one of my favourite end credit sequences of all time, which sends you out on a terrific high note. It’s tough to predict whether a sequel about 40-year old versions of Bill and Ted is going to work, but all I ask is that the writers put as much thought into it that they put into Bogus Journey. I’m sure many will cynically roll their eyes when I say that Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey is a very ingenious and clever comedy that manages to improve upon the original, but all have to say to that is… you might be a king or a little street sweeper, but sooner or later, you dance with the Reaper!