Bill & Ted's Most Excellent Collection Review
Never has “smart” comedy been so dumb.
Despite their puerile antics, there’s no denying that the exploits of Bill S. Preston, Esq. (Alex Winter) and Ted “Theodore” Logan (Keanu Reeves) possess a great deal of intelligence; making up for their lame-brained personas. The brilliance of Excellent Adventure and Bogus Journey is carefully masked by surfer dude repartee, zany slapstick and sly references. But it’s there. Don’t believe me? In what other movie would a medieval king send the leads to an iron maiden, only for the buffoons to mistake it for the heavy metal band? Where else would you see someone perform a volley of air guitar, only for the sound to miraculously appear? And how many movies can get away with using a phone booth as a time machine, and not come under fire from Doctor Who fans?
It’s true - Bill and Ted’s cinematic legacy is fondly-remembered, and has entered the cultural zeitgeist (just like their future selves). Long before Wayne’s World, Silent Bob and his not-so-silent friend, Bill and Ted ruled the roost, as far as “potty-humour” went. Many mainstream critics realised what the writers were trying to achieve, but the films were largely ignored by the senior press. But for Generation X, these cinematic slackers were the most loveable chowder-heads since Cheech and Chong. There’s something fun and sincere about these films; celebrating slacker culture and making fun of it simultaneously. While they will never be dubbed masterpieces, there’s a nostalgic gloss to the Bill and Ted pictures, that will appeal to any child of the 80’s.
Therefore, MGM have finally got their act together, and ushered forth a box set of all things “excellent” and “bogus”. So, reach for your guitars, as we go down memory lane, San Dimas-style…
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure - 7/10
Released in 1989, Excellent Adventure would be a surprise commerical success, and turn Reeves and Winter into unlikely stars. Fate wouldn’t be too kind to the latter, but it certainly projected Reeves into the public limelight. And what a film to build your reputation on - a golden comedy that mixes sci-fi and laughs with childish glee. It’s almost impossible to hate a film so good-natured; allowing the audience to forgive it’s numerous missteps. It’s also a fine example of how to mix the inane with the ingenious - low-brow humour, but with a brilliant concept to make it fly. It really makes you yearn for simpler times, when Hollywood had more than remakes on its money-grabbing mind…
The credit lies with screenwriters Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon, who treat the buddy formula to a time-travel makeover. Fuelled by the success of Back to the Future, they set-about sending a pair of bozo’s into the past, with anarchic results. The story is simplistic, but reasonably high-concept, following clueless teens Bill and Ted, in San Dimas, California. They long to become a successful band (dubbed “The Wild Stallyns”), but they possess no musical talent whatsoever. Unfortunately, they are also flunking history, with a presentation due relatively soon. If they fail, the band will be no more, and Ted’s dad will send him to military school.
Fortunately, they are approached by the enigmatic Rufus (George Carlin), who comes from the future, via a souped-up phone box. Apparently, the pair become very important as the years go by, so the band has to stay together. So, what to do? Travel through history of course! With a booth of their own, the pair go into the past, picking up various famous figures along the way (including Abraham Lincoln, Napoleon and Beethoven), in a bid to pass their course. Matheson and Solomon take this idea the whole nine yards, and Excellent Adventure is at it’s best when the titular pair are dithering about through time. In fact, this fish-out-of-water premise has plenty of mileage, especially when the pair bring their “accomplices” into the present. Seeing Napoleon (Terry Camilleri) go insane at the Waterloo slide-park is simply hilarious…
There’s also that great montage in the San Dimas shopping mall, in which the historical figures are left to their own devices. Genghis Khan (Al Leong) goes berserk on a group of security guards. Joan of Arc (Jane Wiedlin) takes over an aerobics course (as you would). And Beethoven (Clifford David) takes the mall by storm when he discovers the electrical keyboard. The film is a string of amusing scenarios, that work better than one might expect. Director Stephen Herek has a light touch - the film never takes itself seriously - and he manages to handle the different elements well. These days, some of the effects are looking very ropey indeed, but that’s to be expected. But they do the trick (especially the intentionally-cheesy “time portal” scenes), adding to the fun atmosphere.
Holding the film together though, is definitely Reeves and Winter. They rise to the challenge admirably. The Matrix star has strived to escape this role, and he has, yet many people still identify him as the well-meaning Ted. In fact, it’s the only character that has fit his style of performing completely. His delivery of the oft-imitated “Whoa!” moments is spot-on, and endearing in an utterly dim way. Same goes for Winter, who melds well with Reeves - it’s like they’ve been friends for years. It’s a little disappointing to see Carlin so underused as Rufus (especially since I’ve grown to appreciate him as a comedic performer), but he gets more screen time here than in Bogus Journey. In fact, the entire cast is willing to take the silly material in their strides. It’s a nicely-played ensemble, indeed.
Excellent Adventure was just that - a fun and imaginative comedy, that introduced two loveable characters to the screen. Its sense of fun has yet to diminish, and it’s faults (mostly 80’s-related) don’t derail the experience. The ending, while hokey, is still creative; with the pair learning that their music will end war and famine, and bring peace to the planet (an insane notion, that actually seems plausible after the barrage of silliness we’ve seen before it). It’s heart-warming to see a teenage comedy that doesn’t resort to crass titty jokes, and Stifler-types to snare its target audience. For all it’s dim-wittedness, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure might just surprise you with its secret weapon - it’s bloody clever too…
Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey - 6/10
After the box office success of their first outing, it would have been heinous to deny Reeves and Winter a sequel. In fact, the pair were more than willing to jump into the booth once more, for the rather ambitious Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991). Well, I say ambitious - the actual production is filmmaking-by-numbers, but the plot is a different beast entirely. Matheson and Solomon returned to pen the script, and rather than rehash the first film, they decided to send their creations to Hell. Literally.
At first glance, everything seems rosy for “The Wild Stallyns”. The pair are living on their own, and dating those “bodacious babes” they picked up from England on their last escapade. Better yet, they’ve managed to wrangle their way into a battle of the bands tournament. Unfortunately, they get killed by evil robot versions of themselves; sent back through time by the sinister Chuck De Nomolos (Joss Ackland). Therefore, they are whisked away to Hell by the Grim Reaper (William Sadler), and must return to the land of the living, if their future utopia is to be fulfilled…
Bogus Journey is a much “bigger” picture than its predecessor, with more outlandish ideas, yet it doesn’t quite beat that films undeniable brilliance. It’s just as entertaining, but fewer gags hit the mark. This might be signalled by the change in tone - it’s a weird and macabre story, as opposed to the bright original, but that was clearly the aim in the minds of the writers. The directorial duties also passed to Brit Peter Hewitt, who brings a different aesthetic to the material, while maintaining the fun atmosphere. Most of the picture takes place in Hell after all, with Bill and Ted facing their fears (Bill being kissed by his ancient aunt, and Ted being sent to military school), that provides some laughs but doesn’t linger in the memory, or move the plot.
Much better, is the introduction of Death himself, played with superb comic-timing by the underrated Sadler. In a side-splitting parody of The Seventh Seal, the Reaper challenges the pair to a game of their choice. If they win, their deaths will be erased. Only instead of chess, they taunt him with games of Twister, Battleship and Cluedo (“Wrong Death! It was Professor Plum!”). The whole film is like this, with several sequences that hit the ball out of the park (like the sequence in Heaven), or merely plod along (the scenes with Ackland). Reeves and Winter are once again an affable presence, but the script doesn’t seem as fresh this time around - especially during the grating conclusion, in which they remind us “to be excellent to each other”. At least Hewitt has the sense to end with a decent rock track; “God Gave Rock N’ Roll To You II” by 80’s legend Kiss.
Those reading this page should already be familiar with Bill and Ted. Therefore, you will know exactly what to expect. Comedy is rarely so fun and hip these days, so at least we have these good-natured efforts to return to, once in a while. Excellent Adventure and Bogus Journey have both aged very well, running on nostalgic value alone. Bodacious, indeed.
The Box Set
Hopes were high when MGM announced a “Deluxe” Bill & Ted box set. Well, to be honest, this isn’t a deluxe treatment of the series - but it’s easily the best way to enjoy Excellent Adventure and Bogus Journey. Including the current DVDs of each film, the box set comes bundled with a third disc of wildly entertaining special features…
Plus, just look at the box!
Designed to look like the time-travelling phone booth from the films, the set is sure to satisfy fans. While the contents don’t gain full marks, you’ve got to give MGM kudos for their wonderful box art. EXCELLENT!
The Look and Sound
Those hoping for new transfers will be looking in the wrong place. These are the same discs available separately, so no work has been done to improve either sound or picture. The ratios differ (2.35:1 for Excellent Adventure, and 1.85:1 for the sequel), but both look good in these anamorphic widescreen presentations. While far from perfect, these transfers possess a reasonable amount of detail; marred only by a soft hue to the image. Colour is well-above average, but viewers should notice persistent grain, which lessens slightly during Bogus Journey. The transfers are clear, but the usual defects are apparent (but none of the faults spoil one’s enjoyment). Perhaps MGM will invest in a re-mastering job in the future, but for the time being, these presentations should suffice.
As for audio, we get the same Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks. Naturally, the mix for Excellent Adventure is showing its age - it’s not terribly active, with most of the action relegated to the front speakers. When the surrounds do come into play (especially during the time-travel scenes), it doesn’t really have the impact it should. Yet, it’s still perfectly serviceable, with clear dialogue and music. Bogus Journey is a marginal improvement, as you’d expect, with more kick and bass activity to keep the viewer engaged. These tracks could be improved a great deal, but they do the trick.
Bogus Journey also gets Mono tracks in French, Spanish and Portuguese, with the same in subtitled form too.
After skipping the movie discs (which include the trailers and a vintage fluff piece on Bogus Journey), your attention should be drawn to the “non-bogus” disc. The extras here, are well-worth a look for aficionados of the Bill & Ted oeuvre. Reeves and Carlin are absent throughout, but this is no poor effort.
First, is a conversation with writers Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson (AKA "the real Bill & Ted"), which runs for a solid 20-minutes. This is pretty interesting stuff, since the pair delve into the creation of the iconic pair; who seem to reflect their own teenage experiences. They also discuss developing ideas for the original film. The “Most Triumphant Making-Of Documentary” (30 minutes) is also intriguing, and the first documentary I’ve seen on the series. It never goes into significant detail, but offers entertaining facts nevertheless, with some talking-head material that delves into both films and the subsequent cartoon. An interview with guitar legend Steve Vai, and an “Air Guitar Tutorial” maintain the fun atmosphere. The latter includes actual air guitar champions, who proceed to make themselves look very silly indeed.
We also get “Video Biographies” (16 minutes) of the historical figures in Excellent Adventure, a “Lingo Guide” to the pair’s colourful vocabulary, a series of radio spots, and a batch of “Writer’s Notes”. However, the most interesting extra feature is probably the “Premiere” episode of the cartoon series. I remember this well, and it was good to see it included here. While the show didn’t last long, it did get most of the elements right, with some spiffy animation. While the lack of commentaries annoyed me, I’m sure followers will enjoy the features on offer here…
The Bottom Line
I had a most excellent time with this box set, and any fans of the titular pair should love it too! While MGM could have put the effort in where it counts (like new transfers), you won't feel Melvin'd - the extras manage to satisy, and just having the films bundled together in a cool box is something to appreciate. Yes way, dudes!