After years of speculation, rumor and in-fighting, ‘T2 Trainspotting’ has finally arrived. It’s one of the most unexpected sequels to shuffle onto screens in years and, thankfully, it’s also one of the best. Not as good as the original? Sure, but what is these days?
The biggest challenge everyone involved had in delivering a ‘Trainspotting 2’ was simply finding a way to justify the sequel’s existence. Novelist Irvine Welsh did his own ‘Trainspotting’ sequel in print years ago, but Danny Boyle and returning screenwriter John Hodge wisely went off in a different direction. Welsh’s ‘Porno’ had some amusing ways to get the old gang back together (some of which made it into this sequel) and then the book fell into that awkward trap of feeling like a remake rather than a sequel, diving back into old wells and pulling out diminishing returns. Ingeniously, Boyle and Hodge didn’t attempt to recreate the charms of their 1990s masterpiece. Instead, they created a film about the pains of aging, memory, nostalgia and regret, using their old characters and iconic moments from the first film as a springboard for something fresh. It’s still a wild, hilarious and relentlessly paced ride like the original. The movie just springs from a more melancholic place that uses old tricks to deliver fresh licks.
Like the original, the plot is almost inconsequential. It’s an episodic series of events designed more to explore characters, ideas, culture and place than express some sort of story that desperately needed to be told. Renton (Ewan McGregor) starts the film running again, this time on a treadmill chasing a runner’s high as his new addiction of choice. He moved to Amsterdam after ripping off his mates in the last movie and returns to Scotland for some mysterious reasons. Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) has inherited his aunt’s pub, but mostly still runs scams for a living. His latest involves blackmailing the clients of his escort girlfriend (Anjela Nedyalkova). Spud (Ewen Bremner) has had it rough, and is now a deadbeat dad regressing into old addictions to cope with the pain of a disappointing life. Begbie (Robert Carlyle) is still rotting away in prison, but has plans for escape and violence. Everyone is surprised by Renton’s return and they all have quite different reactions ranging from joy to violent rage. (No points for guessing who feels the latter.)
From there, the movie dips in and out of various subplots and diversions, coasting towards a conclusion that’s emotionally satisfying without hitting all the conventional storytelling beats. To be clear, that’s a good thing. Part of the visceral excitement of ‘Trainspotting’ always came from its refusal to conform to any clearly recognizable narrative structure, coasting more on characters and a world, with relentless pacing and sudden dramatic gearshifts as a guide. In its own way, ‘T2 Trainspotting; does something similar yet different. Danny Boyle’s visual style remains one of giddy excitement with cameras rushing around scenes and finding the most peculiar possible angles to capture the action in a spirit of hyperactive disorientation. He makes constant visual references to and quotations from the previous movie, sometimes as in-jokes but mostly for melancholy. It’s immediately clear by looking at the actors’ faces how much time has passed. When footage of the old movie is cut in, it’s more for a sense of contrast. These are memories of a different time and a different movie that Boyle uses for an exploration of painful memory and fruitless nostalgia.
Stylistically, ‘T2’ is the type of ambitious sequel like ‘The Godfather Part II’ that comments on the original text as much as furthering the narrative. The movie might exist thanks to ’90s nostalgia, but it’s also about the addictive perils of looking back on life rather than living it. While the sequel still feels like ‘Trainspotting’, it’s a different world and a different film. Sick Boy’s illicit antics are sleazier and less charming. Renton’s self-obsession is sad. Spud’s bumbling lowlife nature is tragic. Begbie’s violence is pathetic. The actors all do a remarkable job of reviving their iconic creations (especially Bremner, who emerges as the unexpected heart of the movie thanks to a beautifully pained and subtly funny performance), yet wisely play them as the people they’ve become rather than the people they were.
The sequel is still as breathlessly entertaining, playfully naughty and darkly comedic as the original, but everything feels a bit more thoughtful. While ‘Trainspotting’ was aimed squarely at a youth market, ‘T2 Trainspotting’ is aimed more at viewers who saw the original film when they were young and have aged out of that demographic. The movie is about looking back and realizing that’s as addictive as heroin and just as likely to cause you to stop moving forward. It’s about the painful pleasure of old friendships that can reflect who you were and are as much as family. It’s about alpha males aging out of their prime and being stuck with what’s left of themselves when the posturing is gone. It’s about figuring out who you truly are long after coming of age. It’s about Scotland’s peculiar mixture of growth and stasis. It’s somehow about all these things and a satisfying sequel to an iconic piece of pop culture.
The episodic narrative serves up a few dead ends and the movie will mean nothing to viewers who aren’t already in love with ‘Trainspotting’. However, John Hodge and Danny Boyle deserve tremendous kudos for delivering a follow-up of such complexity and sheer pleasure. Making a sequel to ‘Trainspotting’ was a near impossible task, much less one that actually has something on its mind beyond nostalgia (even if that something involves commenting on nostalgia). It’s unlikely that ‘T2’ will ever be remembered more fondly than ‘Trainspotting’, but it is likely that the film will be considered something that must be seen by anyone who fell for the original and/or ages. There’s something tremendously special about what Danny Boyle and company were able to accomplish with their sequel, and even though the target audience is primarily limited to aging ‘Trainspotting’ fans wary about how the world has changed and/or passed them by, at least that special breed of misfit has a movie thrillingly and beautifully catered to their needs. Plus, it has several great toilet gags, and the world needs more of those, now more than ever.