A truly satisfying sequel.
T2 Trainspotting is another sequel delivered decades after its first film. Unlike the majority of these nostalgia-driven retreads, however, T2 actually satisfies. It wants to revel in the past and remember the good ol’ times plenty, sure, but it also has a lot on its mind about its characters’ present state of affairs. It’s a movie about a group of men in their 40s realizing they aren’t in their 20s anymore and struggling to cope with that passage of time. Despite the many callbacks and self-referential nods, T2 Trainspotting is far more than just superficial fan service.
Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle broke out in a huge way with 1996’s Trainspotting – a gleefully anarchic tale of Scottish punk youths and the junk they love to inject into their veins. This admittedly more even-keeled sequel comes with a script by original screenwriter, John Hodge, based off two Irvine Welsh novels: “Trainspotting” and its literary follow-up “Porno”. Boyle’s camera is as unpredictable as ever and his sensibilities remain eclectic and sharp. He’s a master filmmaker revisiting the world of one of his greatest works. The filmmaker doesn’t waste this unique opportunity (for the most part).
Sometimes the film goes a little outside the bounds of believability when it emphasizes the hallmarks of the original Trainspotting instead of the characters’ lives within this world. They all seem to focus on only what was seen during the first movie while nearly disregarding everything before, after, or in between their last time on screen. Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) is frozen by fear in T2 by the first beats of Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life”. But the only relation the song has to these movies is that it was featured on the soundtrack to the 1996 original. It’s included as a callback to the movie itself and not the events within it. Frankly, T2 flirts dangerously close at times with going full-on "member berries". But Boyle and company thankfully have too much to say and not enough time to say it in, so these casual slips feel fleeting, few, and far between.
The dysfunctional quadruplet of Spud (Ewen Bremner), Renton (McGregor), Sick Boy/Simon (Jonny Lee Miller) and Begbie (Robert Carlyle) has collectively decided to “choose regret” over the first film’s ironic motto “choose life”. They aren’t looking forward to an unsure future; all they want to do is return to what’s familiar. They’re getting by the best they can in their respective circumstances, but aren’t quite comfortable with who they’ve become. The past is a beautiful sunset in the rearview mirrors of their lives.
As Simon bluntly tells Renton, “You’re a tourist in your own past.” These guys have aged and have grown in certain ways, but they haven’t fully moved on from their perceived “glory days”. Spud’s still a junkie, Simon’s still a schemer, and Begbie is still addicted to violence. Renton, however, lacks any momentum to do anything until he suffers a heart attack on a treadmill. He isn’t dragged back to his old ways with his old friends – he willingly and full-heartedly takes the fall.
As the heartbreaking Spud, Bremner is the most sympathetic of the group. His gaping mouth and wide eyes do a great job at relaying the innocence underneath the cruelty inflicted by the outside world. Miller and McGregor are solid if unexceptional but their on screen chemistry is dynamite; it’s easy to see why these two frenemies can’t quit each other. A couple quick cameos from the first film’s supporting cast – including Kelly McDonald in a tragically brief scene – help acclimatize the lead performers back into this world after 20 years away from it.
Robert Carlyle perfectly embodies the frustration and impotence that consumes Begbie, but the character’s subplots are far enough removed from the main action that they sort of seem unnecessary until the inevitable confrontation with his scorched former crew. When Begbie shows his fangs the character becomes terrifying and T2 hits on another deadly threat just as dangerous as heroin was in the first film. Until then, however, Begbie’s basically just Deebo in Next Friday: he shows up for the sequel because he was part of the original and ostensibly still has some scores to settle, but spends most of his time twiddling his thumbs until the plot calls for his involvement in the main storyline.
Flashbacks abound in director Danny Boyle’s rapid-fire approach to visual storytelling with archival footage from Trainspotting mixed in with newly created moments. One of these new flashbacks in particular stands out: It’s a scene lifted from the first novel wherein the crew encounters a homeless wino in an abandoned train station. This wino turns out to be Begbie’s father and the moment’s inclusion here really helps underscore the dynamic between Begbie and his own son, adding some needed heft to his storyline.
The theme of arrested development amongst stunted men runs heavy throughout T2. Renton’s whole return to Scotland is seemingly spurred by his desire to make peace with his past but it becomes apparent that he misses the old days, for better or worse. After an ass kicking from Sick Boy and a mouthful of harsh words from Spud, Renton goes all in with his old pals. Minus the heroin, this time.
The prevalent drug usage of the first Trainspotting is almost completely abandoned here. Sick Boy’s moved on from heroin to cocaine but little fuss is made of his addiction. When the film starts, Spud is still hooked on the skag, but seems to kick his demons without the visceral and haunting trauma of withdrawal that Renton went through in the first film. There are no dead babies crawling on the ceiling here – Spud eventually just takes up writing as an outlet and the junk habit inconspicuously fades away in the background. In a nice touch, Spud becomes the defacto narrator of this story considering the lack of voiceover that permeated every moment of the original.
With heroin no longer the object of his obsession, Simon develops a plan to turn the dilapidated bar he inherited from his aunt into a full-fledged brothel to be run by his girlfriend Veronika (Anjelika Nedyalkova). A couple of memorable scenes involve Simon and Renton swindling a business development board (they pitch their whorehouse as an “artisan bed and breakfast”) and nicking wallets from the patrons at an Anti-Catholic rally. Their plans are never quite as clever as they think they are, nor as monumental in their rewards. But it’s a lot of fun to watch.
For all the discussions of mortality, wasted legacies, ennui, and malaise in the current climate, T2 Trainspotting is also blisteringly funny. One scene in particular finds Renton and Begbie on opposite sides of a bathroom stall in a sublime moment of physical comedy and timing. It’s absolutely hilarious and couldn’t be perfected any further. Spud’s idealistic attempts at replacing his heroin habit with something more productive results in a handful of comedic bursts including a black-and-white Raging Bull reference that garners some solid laughs.
As with the first film, music plays a massive role in shaping the picture. “Shotgun Mouthwash” by High Contrast kicks off T2 with a crunchy driving beat that sets the tone perfectly. A montage set to Blondie’s “Dreaming” in the second act is pleasant in its own corny, knowing way. And closing it all out with “Lust for Life” makes a nice little bookend with the original’s opening scene.
One of the most pleasant surprises of 2017 so far, T2 Trainspotting might not be remembered as well as its predecessor in another 20 years’ time. But it’s guaranteed to leave a deeper mark on those who choose to shoot it into their bloodstream. It’s funny, poignant, and expertly crafted. This is the nostalgic modern sequel that we deserve.
Dan is a lifelong movie geek who's been a projectionist, critic, director, (accidental) actor, and writer in the industry since E.T. phoned home. He currently lives in Vancouver and doesn’t get outside nearly as much as he should.