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Looking Back: Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991)

The journey of Bill and Ted as a movie franchise was such a surprise that even its studio didn’t quite know what to do with the sequel. The original “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” was shot largely in 1987 with modest expectations at best and belatedly released two years later. The comedy, a time traveling goof about two dimwitted teens who alter history in order to pass a class, was a surprise hit for Orion Pictures. While the teaming of two less-than-brilliant comic figures was hardly a breakthrough in mainstream comedy, the cheerful and very funny performances by Alex Winter as Bill S. Preston, Esquire and Keanu Reeves as Ted Theodore Logan caught on big. Making another “Excellent Adventure” was a no brainer, except Orion Pictures was headed towards bankruptcy and the film’s original title, “Bill and Ted Go To Hell,” got tossed due to censorship. When the sequel finally arrived in the summer of ’91, it was among the last gasps of Orion, a great studio with a library of exceptional titles.

In the sequel, Bill and Ted are facing their growing destinies as rock gods and still dating the “royal babes” they picked up while time traveling. When an appearance by their “other us’es” takes place, they once again embrace the sci-fi conditions of their existence. Unfortunately, they realize too late that their doppelgangers are evil robot doubles, sent from the future by the sinister mastermind, Legolos (Joss Acklund, visibly unhappy to be in this).

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As promised by the original title, Bill and Ted die. They escape from hell, break into Heaven and make a new companion in The Grim Reaper (a very game William Sadler). That’s all in the first two acts and, it must be said, it truly is totally excellent. The visual effects, whacked-out ideas (like Winter playing Ted’s creepy grandmother), impressive set designs, Monty Python-esque logic and unending stream of hilarious ideas and one-liners make this seem like its headed for classic status. Yes, I cringed at the dated homophobic jokes and the gags that are more silly than clever but really, this appeared to be heading towards Sequels That Are Better Than The Original Hall of Fame.

After a robust, fairly brilliant first hour, it runs out of steam and ends up with a climax too similar to the high school history report from the first movie. A history lesson, a final battle with Legolos, an introduction to Station and some last minute time travel are shoe horned into a more-is-more finish that overextends its welcome.

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Another bummer is how two movies that clearly garnered zeitgeist appeal and an appreciative youthful audience managed to misuse George Carlin entirely. I love the look and casual cadence of Carlin’s Rufus but the most noteworthy quality to the character is that he’s played by a comedy legend. You’d think the screenwriters would figure out a better way to implicate Carlin into the movie but he’s in this even less than the first one.

Bill and Ted paved the way to movies like “Wayne’s World,” “Encino Man” and the “Beavis and Butthead” TV series, in which two man-children play off one another. While the chronicles of Wayne and Garth are superior and Mike Judge’s take on stunted adolescence has real bite, Bill and Ted maintain their dopey appeal.

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Some complained they were simply doing Sean Penn’s Spicoli character from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” but that accusation doesn’t seem fair. Bill and Ted are dumb but innocent, never taking drugs or depicted as anything more than dopey kids with earnest, outsized dreams. Like a gleefully stupid Rosencratz and Guildenstern, they stand in the shadows of legends and struggle to grasp the what and why of their puzzling existence. They also fail to realize that their greatest achievements come from solving massive problems with the logic of a third grader.

It remains a very good joke that the space time continuum and the fate of the world would rest in the hands of a couple of California rocker dudes. The reason both of the Bill and Ted movies work is that, while our heroes may be quite stupid, the movies are clever, upbeat and have more actual laughs than you’d expect. Excellent!

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