Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure
The news that Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter are still considering a third outing for Bill and Ted, the loveable fools who somehow manage to bring about a 27th century utopia of peace and serenity (apart from the music bit) through their band Wyld Stallions, hasn’t been met with the usual declamations that they’re bound to ruin it. That’s understandable, as they have a sequel under their belts that managed to improve on the clever-stupid original. There’s also a sense that, for all the easy catchphrases (“Party On!”, “Excellent!”) their adventures and journeys haven’t been consigned to the flash-in-the-pan dustbin the way, say, Wayne’s World has. In its own way, the cheerful abandon of these goofs remains fresh, and there’s potential in the idea that age hasn’t brought wisdom.
Added to that, the first sequel managed to take a commendably out-there detour. Originally titled Bill & Ted Go to Hell, it isn’t so surprising the fear of remonstrations from religious groups saw it changed to Bogus Journey. The joyful irreverence of their afterlife adventure demands something just as original for the trilogy capper. Last that was heard, the script was being tinkered with by the leads. Significantly, the penmen of the first two, Chris Matheson (son of Richard, no less) and Ed Solomon, are reportedly on board. I recall the screenwriters making sufficient impression with their first two movies that I actively went out and rented Mom and Dad Save the World. I didn’t really bother after that. Matheson’s output has been indifferent since. Solomon has been more prolific, with credits including Men in Black (you can see the DNA there) and Charlie’s Angels. Less joyously, he was also involved with Super Mario Bros, What Planet Are You From? (his history with Garry Shandling extending back to the It’s Garry Shandling’s Show) and Now You See Me (I know, it has its fans, but I’m not among them). Whether their contribution will rank with their formative hits remains to be seen, but hopefully Dean Parisot will still be in the director’s chair if and when it sees the light of day (as the Galaxy Quest guy, he seems ideal).
If the stars and writers have remained the same, the directors have not (there’s also no chance George Carlin will make it a hat trick as erstwhile mentor Rufus). Peter Hewitt, who brought a winningly cartoonish style to the sequel, has since been mired in mostly half-arsed family movies. Stephen Herek counts as one of the ’90s most reliable journeyman directors. With the kind of (lack of) style that wouldn’t look out of place in a TV movie, he first got notices with Gremlins knock-off Critters and went on to land a series of hits including the live action 101 Dalmatians, the first in the even-one-is-one-too-many The Mighty Ducks series. Only Bill & Ted follow up Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead had any of the anarchy of that movie. Credit where it’s due, though, what Herek lacks in visual acumen he makes up for in energy. It just hasn’t been enough to sustain him since the ’00s and beyond. When Excellent Adventure is at is best, it’s down to the combination of that zest and Matheson and Solomon’s scattershot gags. At other times it reveals itself stretched thin, hoping to get by on merely being noisy and colourful.
I was among many who first assumed the screenwriters had essentially ripped off Doctor Who with a slacker twist. Not for the time travel so much as for the telephone box. Whether that occurred to them when they re-envisioned the initial Chevrolet van (too similar to have a time travelling vehicle after Back to the Future) I don’t know, but there’s reason enough not to have paid very much attention to possible transatlantic cries of foul (particularly since Doctor Who was on its last legs at the time). And besides, nothing about the original feels derivative. If anything, it has been hugely influential. If not for Bill & Ted, would we have seen Dude Where’s My Car? (another quite clever movie hiding behind dumb protagonists) or Harold & Kumar? As for the final reel’s non-sequiturs of time travel logic (having to remember to come back later to set up useful props having just thought of them in the moment, so they miraculously appear), nu-Who showrunner Steven Moffat appears to have based his entire woeful schtick on such not-really-very-clever plot malarkey (it’s one thing to take the piss out of time-travel logic in an outright comedy, another to set your boat alight while you are still sailing it).
A huge part of Bill and Ted’s appeal is that they’re so guilelessly good-natured. Reeves and Winter’s casting altered the original DNA of the script, since the characters were envisaged younger and more hopelessly nerdy (mentor Rufus was conceived as in his late twenties at this point). They bring them same wide-eyed , open-mouthed, affability to all their encounters, and we as viewers are let in on the joke; their excellent adventure is fastened by the slenderest of dramatic hooks (“Gentlemen, I’m here to help you with your history report”) and the added bonus of that old standby; Ted (Reeves) will be sent by his dad to military school (which would be amusing enough to see in itself) when he flunks.
Their stupidity over basic history possesses a moronic genius, part of which is down to their sure grip on stupid-clever language; it’s a mixture of big, multi-consonant, words and dumb ones, often anchored by a mannered mode of semi-Shakespearean, by way of San Dimas, vocabulary (“Strange things are afoot”, “We are in danger of flunking most heinously tomorrow, dude”). Their ignorance of history is boundless (it has to be, to service the plot), including the understanding that Caesar is “a salad dressing dude” and Napoleon is “a short, dead dude”. Albeit, they know Joan of Arc is not Noah’s wife and Marco Polo is “not just a water sport”.
There’s a certain flourish to the duo’s background as well. Bill’s bookish dad has somehow landed a gorgeous stepmom (Missy, Amy Stock-Poynton), only a few years older than them (“Your stepmom’s cute!”) leading to the rather icky moment where Mr Preston (J Patrick McNamara) decides to use Bill’s bed for some carnal business (“Now your dad is going for it in your own room!”). Captain Logan (Hal Landon Jr.) is particularly good value as a hard-ass police officer, although Landon’s crowning moment comes when he is possessed in Bogus Journey. I suspect the “Deputy Van Halen” scene was inspired by Cameron’s impression of Sloane’s dad in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
Herek’s rendition of history comes via studio backlots, so there is much expense spared. The race through history, taking on board multiple luminaries, could be seen as leaving one wanting more (a good thing) or not making the most of the premise’s potential. Certainly, the extended interlude in the fifteenth century is the weakest. It spurns any historical dudes but provides Bill and Ted’s obligatory love interests (“Those are historical babes!”). One of whom, Kimberely Kates, has clearly gone on to spend an inappropriate amount of time with the Surgeon General of Beverly Hills. Still, there’s a still-funny Iron Maiden gag (you can’t go wrong there, really).
Some of the historical figures are more successful than others. Terry Camilleri knocks it out of the park as Napoleon, which is saying something since there have been plenty of comic riffs undermining the character over the years (Love and Death, Time Bandits). He’s given the longest sojourn in 1988 and, if some of his scenes (the bowling alley, the water park) aren’t as amusing as others (“Eat the pig!”) he commendably never breaks character (“Do you realise you stranded one of Europe’s greatest leaders in San Dimas?”).
The accompanying score from David Newman includes moments of excellence and others of high irritation. Its biggest problem is that it permeates the entire movie, rather than being used to sparing effect. I love some of Newman’s compositions (Heathers is an absolute classic) but this one doesn’t know when to stop; Herek unfortunately seems to think sped-up motion and fast cutting to cheesy synths and guitar are comedy heaven, and they aren’t (it’s not so much this aspect has aged badly; it was as cheesy as gorgonzola even then). Additionally, the soft rock nobody bands who populate the remainder of the soundtrack are universally awful. Which may be a nod to Bill & Ted’s Terrible Music, but it wears thin on the ears very quickly.
So; Billy the Kid (Dan Shor) is likeably uncrazy. So-crates (Tony Steedman) is amusing unponderous (“Philosophise with him!”) and there are some nice plays on insightful pronouncements (“The only true wisdom consists of knowing that you know nothing… That’s us, dude!”). Sigmund Frood (“How’s it going, Frood dude?”) is envisaged as a wiener-holding loser with the ladies, and is granted a nice moment at the police station (“Why do you claim you are Sigmund Freud?”, “Why do you claim I am not Sigmund Freud?”) but Rod Loomis doesn’t quite give him enough attitude. Regularly cast heavy Al Leong is a mostly silent Genghis Khan whose best moment is drinking out of the toilet, while Robert V. Barron aces Abraham Lincoln (even more affable than Daniel Day Lewis, and adept at intoning Valley speak in classic Lincoln mode). “Dave” Beethoven’s (Clifford David) discovery of the electric keyboard is amusing up to a point. Then there’s The Go-Gos’ Jane Wiedlin, who makes for an utterly adorable Joan of Arc (“Miss of Arc”).
Part of the problem during the last third is the assumption that dropping these characters in the mall is sufficiently amusing in and of itself. Joan does a workout routine, Dave plays keyboards; it reaches the point where you wouldn’t be surprised to see Rodney Dangerfield show up. The history talk is likewise quite laurel-resting, but is fortunately interspersed with a few gems; Frood analyses Ted, while Bill demurs (“No, I’ve just got a minor Oedipal Complex”) and there’s a lovely summary of So-crates’ influence (“And like Ozzy Osbourne, was repeatedly accused of corruption of the young”).
As for their (and our) most excellent future, well it’s little wonder Joss Ackland was seen to find it absolutely sickening in the follow-up (perhaps this was partially Solomon and Matheson’s own disposition). Even then, it yields a decent line or two (“We’d take you with us, but it’s a history report, not a future report”). And any future that produces a futuristic George Carlin must have something going for it.
Excellent Adventure was a surprise success, a modest hit for a film on an even more modest budget, back when nothing was expected box office-wise from movies released in February. It took more than a year for it to see the light of day in the UK, as much a reflection of the generally slack approach to non-US locales back then as the lack of faith that it would (time) travel.
Perhaps the most complimentary thing I can say about Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is that it’s hardly aged at all (and despite the rumours that he is eternally young, Keanu is noticeably baby-faced here). It’s pretty much exactly as I remembered, hugely winning but a little too undisciplined to cross the threshold into classic territory. It’s in such a rush to get where it’s going it doesn’t always make the most of the fish-out-of-water gags lining up for attention. But then, I do think Bogus Journey has the considerable edge. As Rufus says, “They do get better”. Hopefully Number Three will be better still.