There was a period of time in the late-’80s when a movie could become a hit from cable and video alone and garner enough love that a sequel would get greenlit. This was before Netflix, mind you. Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure was one such movie. Pawned off by major studios and all but shelved after its release, the 1988 film eventually became a cultural phenomenon and gave rise to two cartoon series and a sequel, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey. Thanks to Shout! Factory, you can relive all the non-heinous greatness with their release of Bill & Ted’s Most Excellent Collection.
Bill and Ted are two characters borne from comedy writing sessions between Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon. They performed the guys — speaking fairly intellectually though having no frame of reference, and also being idiots from San Dimas, CA — and they eventually were able to write a script for them, adding in science fiction and adventure elements far more than one might have guessed. While the references and style haven’t aged particularly well, the characters still totally resonate: they’re dumb guys who want to be smart but don’t apply themselves, and they look at every challenge with a positive attitude.
I can’t even fathom how much I watched Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure between 1989 and 1990. It has to be well in to the double digits. Every week, my family would make a trek to Major Video (which later became Blockbuster Video) and I’d rent only the same few movies over and over again (I was 5; gimme a break!) and, along with Back to the Future, you couldn’t stop me from watching the exploits of Bill S. Preston, Esq. (Alex Winter) and Ted “Theodore” Logan (Keanu Reeves). Traveling through time, picking up historical figures, creating causal loops by simply talking about it–I ate it up!
Watching it again the other night, in glorious HD, I was surprised how much of it had been seared into my subconscious, and jokes that were way over my head as a child–Bill’s Oedipal complex; “69, dudes!”–made way more sense now. Jokes about history also landed way better now that I, you know, know what history is. Perhaps my favorite scene now is when the phone booth full of famous people lands in Bill’s backyard and the introduce each to Missy nonchalantly, but saying things like “This is Dave Beeth Oven; Bob Genghis Khan; etc” and it made me laugh so much more than I ever did as a kid. It’s so stupid, but in the best way.
After surprisingly becoming a massive hit long after everyone who worked on the film thought it was dead in the water, a sequel as commissioned, and writers Matheson and Solomon went to work trying to do something that furthered the story of the two soon-to-be Great Ones without retreading all the same territory. The result was a totally different animal, a dark comedy with major horror visuals and themes, about our heroes being killed by future robot duplicates, becoming ghosts, then getting sent to Hell before having to play games against the Grim Reaper himself (William Sadler). Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey was not my favorite at all after its 1991 release, but now that kind of things goes down a whole lot smoother.
Firstly, Sadler’s weird, Czech-accented take on Death is incredibly funny. He’s so insecure, and once he joins the good guys as an ally, he is constantly trying to prove he’s good enough compared to the ghosts of the twin Martian scientist beasts collectively called Station. (Sidebar: Station, and really the whole third act of the movie, doesn’t really work at all. It goes entirely off the rails, which were already a bit wobbly to begin with.) Second, as with Excellent Adventure, the performances of Reeves and Winter remain strangely grounded and likable even if they’re doing altogether more ridiculous things the second time around. They’re truly funny, and Winter especially gives some of the best line readings of the film (“This is non, non-non, NON-heinous!”).
It’s great to have these movies looking good and sounding good; I only ever saw them on VHS tape or basic cable, loaded with commercials prior. As ever, Shout! Factory give us a wonderful presentation, as this collection is spine number five of their Shout Select series. Each film has two brand new commentaries, one with Winter and producer Scott Kroopf, and the other with writers Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson. Both are lively and informative; as usual, the writers’ commentary proves to be the more fun.
In addition, there are two brand new, hour-long-plus documentaries, one for each film. Both have interviews with Winter, Reeves, Kroopf, Matheson, and several members of the cast and crew. Both together give you the full picture of how the first movie came out of nowhere, changing almost nothing in the original script, while the second movie seemed to go nowhere and had to change a lot of the final part of the script. Still, everyone is very up on both movies, and it’s especially great to see Reeves and Winter in the same room talking about the movies in a happy and nostalgic way. True to form, though, Winter tends to do most of the talking.
There are several other features, but they’re all from previous DVD and Blu-ray releases. Also, a bit of a bummer, this set does not include any of the Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure spin-off animated series featuring Winter and Reeves’ voices, nor the extremely short-lived live-action television series starring no one from the original film.
Despite this, if you want the best looking, best sounding, most triumphant versions of both Bill & Ted movies, then you’ll want this set. If you order directly from Shout!, you can also receive a limited edition Rufus (George Carlin) doll. It’s pretty gnarly.
Be excellent to each other…and… PARTY ON, DUDES!
Images: Orion Pictures/Shout Factory, Paul Shipper