CULT CORNER #24: Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)
With a third film in the pipeline, how does the original Bill and Ted adventure hold up?
by Dave James
Who made it?: Stephen Herek (Director), Chris Matheson, Ed Solomon (Writers), Scott Kroopf, Michael S. Murphey, Joel Soisson (Producers), De Laurentiis Entertainment Group.
Who’s in it?: Keanu Reeves, Alex Winter, George Carlin, Terry Camilleri, Dan Shor, Al Leong, Jane Wieldlin.
Tagline: “History is about to be rewritten by two guys who can’t spell…”
IMDb rating: 6.8/10.
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 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 (1992), 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 film was 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 this film, which celebrates slacker culture whilst making fun of it simultaneously. While it will never be dubbed a masterpiece, there’s a nostalgic gloss to Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure that will appeal to any child of the 80s.
Released in ’89, the film was a surprise commercial success and turned Reeves and Winter into unlikely stars. Fate wouldn’t be too kind to the latter, but it certainly projected Reeves into the 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 – this is low-brow humour 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 (1985), they set about sending a pair of bozos 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 be in a successful band (dubbed The Wild Stallyns), but they possess no musical talent whatsoever. Unfortunately, they are also flunking history with a presentation due. 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. And Beethoven (Clifford David) takes the mall by storm when he discovers the electric 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. 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 the late and sorely missed 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 is 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 80s-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…
“WATERLOO!” Napoleon has the time of his life.
- Originally, Alex Winter auditioned for the role of Ted and Keanu Reeves auditioned for the role of Bill.
- In the original script, the time machine was a 1969 Chevy Van, but the filmmakers thought that it would be a rip-off of Back to the Future. So, they changed it to a phone booth. Also, when they used the van, Bill and Ted picked up more historical figures than they did in the final film.
- The punk band The Ataris wrote a song titled “San Dimas High School Football Rules!” but it has nothing to do with the film.
- In the book The Producers: Profiles in Frustration producer Scott Kroopf recalled pitching the idea of “Bill & Ted” to Dino De Laurentiis. Quoted Kroopf: “Dino had no idea what the film was about. He didn’t understand what dudes were until someone said to him that ‘dudes’ meant guys who had big dicks. Then he said ‘Oh, great, now I get it.’”
- The phone booth time machine in the film was given away as a contest prize in Nintendo Power magazine, as the magazine was promoting a then-new Bill and Ted game for the NES.