The Bill & Ted series is made up of nothing but miracles. 1989's Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure obviously intended to be nothing but a disposable lark, mocking some cultural trends of the day on the way to being forgotten by the world at large; instead, based really on nothing I can point to except for its sheer goodwill and hugely pleasant performances, it was and remains a beloved cult object, a comedy touchstone strong enough to kick off a nostalgia-driven sequel over three decades later. Much closer to its own time, it made enough money to encourage a sequel, 1991's Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey. And given what the original is, and what 1991 was, and what sequels are, this should obviously have been just a quick and dirty cash-in, repeating the plot and gags from the first movie, making sure the fans were just satiated enough not be annoyed by the whole thing, and letting this be the one that would moulder away in a forgotten cubbyhole of cinema history.

As it happens, Bogus Journey is pretty much the opposite of all that. Chris Matheson & Ed Solomon have written the most ambitious and admirable kind of sequel: one that seems to go far out of its way to avoid repeating anything that happened in the first movie, similar only in that the characters are still the characters, and thus their attitude (and thus the attitude of the film containing them) will remain unchanged (it also has broadly the same narrative structure, but it's not enough to feel like it's following a formula). This would be the only kind of sequel I would ever let them make, if I were dictator of cinema: drop established personalities into a brand new genre, just to see what the hell happens.

What happens in this case is a great delight of a sequel that is a great deal more inconsistent than Excellent Adventure, with greater extremes of highs and lows, and far stranger ideas that it wants to chase down rabbit holes. But the heart of the thing is the same: Alex Winter's Bill S. Preston, esq. and Keanu Reeves's Ted "Theodore" Logan are terrifically agreeable company, for a pair of witless fuckups. Bogus Journey isn't quite as good as Excellent Adventure at moving slowly to allow us to enjoy the hang-out, but some of its best pleasures are still centered around the fact that Bill & Ted are simply indefatigable and profoundly good-natured, a pair of affable morons who can end up condemned to suffer an eternity in Hell and still wear their grins of perpetual joy at being alive. Even when they are dead.

This, then, gets us to some of the massive shifts in focus between the two films. Last time, we had a good old-fashioned high-concept '80s sci-fi comedy about time travel. This time, time travel is used only to get us through the set-up, which is that 700 years in the future, a vicious man named De Nomolos (an especially hammy Joss Ackland) has decided that the tranquil peace brought on by Bill & Ted's career as musical messiahs back in the 20th and 21st Centuries is all bullshit, and so he sends robot clones of Bill & Ted back in time to kill them right before the Battle of the Bands competition where their legend began. The robots succeed. But as mentioned, death itself cannot quell Bill & Ted's guileless cheer; nor, that is to say, Death Himself (William Sadler), who shows up to collect the boys. They outwit him by giving him a wedgie, and we're off on a tour of the afterlife, swiftly zipping from Hell to Purgatory to Heaven, aided reluctantly by the Grim Reaper, who loses four consecutive board games to Bill & Ted before giving up.

Even in that extremely insufficient plot recap, the sheer amount of stuff in Bogus Journey already starts to make itself clear; we have clear, explicit references to the Divine Comedy, The Seventh Seal, and The Terminator, and that's only including things I absolutely had to touch on. Even without leaving the realm of classic cinema that a dumb comedy in 1991 had no actual reason to reference, there's a nod to A Matter of Life and Death in the Heaven sequence. To say nothing of all the rest of what has been jammed into that scenario, and everything that's going around on the edges. It is an extravagantly busy, curious movie, full of visual ideas in both design and cinematography, gleefully flitting from the highest to the lowest brow in its screenplay, and doing all of it while still finding plenty of room for the broad popcorn comedy that is, when all is said and done, the whole point of these movies.

It certainly doesn't all work. One of the things that is immediately clear is that Bogus Journey had more money to spend than Excellent Adventure, and incoming director Peter Hewitt (who is, in general, a trade up from Stephen Herek) obviously doesn't quite know what to do with it: the opening sequence, set in 2691, is too fascinated by the cheesy day-glo sci-fi aesthetic and general Star Trek: The Next Generation-ness of it all (the original '60s Star Trek even gets a prominent cameo) for the good of getting us through the exposition quickly, and George Carlin, such an important stabilising presence in the first movie, feels indifferently jammed into this sequence, lost amongst the design of the garish clothes and sterile sets. Really, nothing about the film completely works while Bill & Ted live; thanks to the ending of the original, the sequel is stuck with the medieval English princesses Elizabeth (Annette Azcuy) and Joanna (Sarah Trigger), and it is plainly not sure how to deal with them; it's also here, and only here, that the film directly recycles jokes for a good hit of "hey, remember that from last time?" I get it as a strategy for warming us up for what will be a very divergent new story, but it certainly feels forced.

Still, once our heroes are chucked off a cliff, the film instantly spikes upward in quality. For one, the visuals become much more interesting, with the make-up team and cinematographer Oliver Wood conspiring to cover Bill & Ted in a bluish otherworldly cast that immediately starts color-coding the movie - and it will be color-coded in multiple different ways before all is said and done. This is all some of the simplest style that the film will trot out for us across its running time: Hell and Heaven are both terrifically creative in their own rights, especially Heaven, which is an unusual collection of strong geometric objects in empty white space.

More importantly, it's when Bill & Ted die that Sadler enters the film, and whatever relative strengths and weaknesses Bogus Journey has, he's clearly an unmixed strength, and my favorite thing about this series. Part of it is the important insight that, to do a good job of parodying a thing, you have to love it and respect it and understand it, which is why he's not simply playing a wacky shade with bone-white flesh and a sullen attitude, he's very clearly playing an homage and send-up of Bengt Ekerot's performance as a sarcastic and easily-annoyed Death in The Seventh Seal, right down to his choice to use a not-quite-Swedish accent. But it's not just pastiche; Sadler's Death also fits into the distinct cadences of the Bill & Ted universe, blossoming according to the same character arcs as the historical figures in the first movie, but because there's only one of him, and he moves from open hostility to unabashed enthusiasm, there's a great deal more to treasure about his climactic embrace of the ebullient party-rocking mindset of the main characters.

But it's impossible to pin down just the one thing that works about Bogus Journey. It's an extraordinary grab bag of conceits and jokes, unified only in that Winters and Reeves treat everything with the same effortless merriment and slacker philosophy. In the years since the last film was shot, Reeves's career had exploded, while Winters had only appeared in something called Rosalie Goes Shopping; they remain a perfectly matched set, however, always sharing scenes in a remarkable balance and acing the film's requirement that they speak several of their lines in unison. While the film as a whole isn't as laser-focused on their charismatic interplay as Excellent Adventure was, and this means that it's a good deal less warm and heartfelt, these performances of these characters remains the foundation upon which the film is built. And it is, despite all logic, an excellent foundation: while this film's expanded palette and wilder range of comic tones are all much appreciated, what makes this work isn't the film's creativity, but the way it backs that creativity up by making sure we like the character going through all this bizarre material, and enjoying their company along the way.

Reviews in this series
Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (Herek, 1989)
Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey (Hewitt, 1991)
Bill & Ted Face the Music (Parisot, 2020)