Renton, Begbie, Sick Boy and Spud are back in smack-tion. But has their story lost its unpolished charm?
It’s both odd and oddly fitting that low-budget 1996 Scottish drug drama Trainspotting would get an overhyped sequel in the franchise-driven age of overhyped sequels, threequels, prequels and whatnot. A brutally knowing depiction of youthful cynicism, best captured in Mark Renton’s famous ‘Choose Life’ speech (an updated-version of which is awkwardly shoehorned-into T2), Trainspotting almost unarguably warrants- even demands- an overdue follow-up. T2 sees the return of Edinburgh’s most charming hedonists, who have- shockingly- survived another two decades of their strange, scary lives. Mark (Ewan McGregor) comes home from Amsterdam to find that his three closest acquaintances have never left. Simon (Jonny Lee Miller) is running a brothel behind the family pub, Spud (Ewen Bremner) is still using and Begbie (Robert Carlyle) is planning his escape from prison. Their paths cross in a variety of ways as each man struggles with the impact of his past on his present circumstances.
With the ever-capable Danny Boyle, director of the original, at the helm, T2 is more comparable to The Force Awakens than Anchorman: The Legend Continues: it builds upon the first film’s legacy, treating it with both reverence and scorn, but incorporating the audience’s own nostalgia for 1996 into the plot to surprising and compelling effect. Boyle has matured enormously as a director in those 20 years, and the film is- visually- much slicker. But the imperfections of T1 were intrinsic to its brilliance, and T2 feels on occasion like a slightly too-glossy markup of the product.
Focused as it is on middle age and the changed headspace of its characters, it’s appropriate- if mildly disappointing- that T2 is significantly slower and (at 117 minutes to T1‘s 90) longer than the original. Rather than filling this time with freshly iconic moments, something T2 perhaps intentionally lacks (with the major exception of a hilarious con on a Battle of the Boyne celebration), Boyle explores deeper and sadder ideas through the eyes of this familiar group. With studio backing and a built-in audience, T2 also provides him the opportunity to tell a personal story to the world, with the Trainspotters occupying relatively generic movie roles for some of the story.
Nevertheless, as soon as “Lust for Life” and “Born Slippy” (both utilised brilliantly in remixed form) start blaring, the energy and unique sensibility of this world race back onto the screen and into the viewer’s heart. Spud begins the film as one of recent cinema’s great tragic figures, but goes through a deeply resonant journey of self-discovery throughout that’s rich with sweetness and stunning melancholy. Carlyle’s Begbie is as terrifying as before, but with an added air of loss, while McGregor and Lee Miller are roguishly fabulous- slipping with ease into their beloved roles.
To a Trainspotting fan older and more burdened with memory than myself, T2 may play as a heartbreaking poem on the changing of eras and shifting dynamics of friendship. With only a recently-developed love for Boyle’s 1996 film, and none of the nostalgia it bears for an older generation, my take on T2 is less multi-dimensional than that of most. But it delights me to see these merry men back in smack-tion, and while T2 may not feel like an essential sequel now, it’s quite possible that it will in 20 years.