Strictly speaking, very few sequels are needed. But artistic and commercial (mostly the latter) demands returns to finished stories and worlds to tell the further adventures of people that we’ve already grown to love. After all, it saves a lot of time on making us like new people.
So, strictly speaking, I wasn’t necessarily clamoring to return to the world of Trainspotting, Danny Boyle’s 1996 black comedy about junkies in urban Scotland. A group of people who would live fast and die young didn’t exactly seem the type you’d want a sequel taking place two decades later.
I’m still not necessarily sure I was clamoring for a return, but T2 Trainspotting (ugh, that title) acquits itself far more admirably than anyone may have expected. Our return to visit the ol’ gang feels aware of the nostalgia trip it’s taking and leans in to it more admirably than most long-gap sequels have in the past few years.
It’s been twenty years since Renton (Ewan McGregor) ran off with 16 thousand pounds that he took from his gang, which led to unstable Begbie’s (Robert Carlyle) arrest. Renton leads a normal life in Amsterdam, but is drawn back home to Edinburgh.
In Ediburgh, he finds that while he’s had a marriage and a job and has been clean for 20 years (things that are all starting to fall apart), his boys haven’t really moved on. Simon “Sick Boy” (Johnny Lee Miller) is caught up in blackmail, cocaine, and barely running a failing pub as he tries to find a new plan to take care of Bulgarian girlfriend Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova). Spud (Ewen Bremner) is suicidal after his wife and child seem to want nothing more to do with him. And Begbie has broken out of prison and is on the warpath, so that’s fun.
The other returning presence here is Danny Boyle, given license to go as wild with his camera as he did on the original Trainspotting (though he’s never really slowed down, if we’re being honest). T2 certainly gives him license to go as wild as he did way back when, this time with more budget and tech, and he takes advantage of it. The camera swings across the 180 degree line and seems to be on almost permanent wheels. Subtitles float in the air, characters launch into fantasy sequences, there’s even some Snapchat filters.
And all that is well and good, but that need to keep up is more indicative of the film’s worst impulses than its best. At its worst, this film is a retread of old moments and remembrances that assumes far more nostalgia on the part of its audience than is healthy. Moments are twisted or reconfigured but seem to have little textual purpose besides a trip down memory lane. The same tracks play, the same actors act, the same director directs.
The nadir of this is the retread of the “Choose Life” monologue that comes halfway through. Reconfigured into a rage against modern ills with the palpable disgust of a middle aged man, this is perhaps the moment where the attempt at reliving old memory tips over into annoying rather than sad. It just feels out of step, an old man being an old man rather than what this film is at its best.
At its best, ironically, it’s a film about how you can’t relive old memories. If no one is moving on, time still takes away the old pleasures. These aren’t carefree men anymore, getting up to crimes and doing drugs with the care of knowing they may die any day now. They’ve survived, and they don’t know what the fuck to do next.
T2 is a great reminder of just how talented this cast was. Ewan McGregor was the breakout, and he slides back into Renton without just the right amount of missed steps. He’s visually aged about a half hour, but he gives Renton much world-weariness while keeping that anarchic spirit that made him such a draw. Johnny Lee Miller should have been a breakout, Simon keeping the movie-star charisma that makes you wonder why you didn’t see this guy in more stuff. Ewen Bremner gives Spud a much more melancholy arc, expanding into a surprisingly soulful performance. And Robert Carlyle turns Begbie into a full-blown psychopath, just as much fun to watch as his unpredictable asshole character from the original.
In its handling of these men (and men are the only thing this handles well, its female characters are slight presences or minor cameos), T2 finds a new sort of soul, something melancholy and poignant. These are men who never expected to have futures, seeing them deal with it has a sadness and a depth that was frankly unexpected.
If T2 Trainspotting was able to lean more melancholy in its form too, in other words if Boyle was able to more directly underline what works about this film with style, then this might have become something truly special, an unexpected sequel than finds its own identity. Alas, it’s a mixed effort that ultimately becomes surprising for the fact that its existence is not regrettable. Better than you thought, not as good as the original, but at least you can see why they made it.