Cast: Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller, Robert Carlyle
Director: Danny Boyle
Writer: John Hodge
The big dread that comes with revisiting a film of this kind, an iconic, generation-defining film that was such a staple of the time when it was released, is that it won’t be artistically justifiable. Too often filmmakers revive old classics when they should’ve left well enough alone in the interest of cashing on the original’s popularity. Movies like The Godfather Part II, Chinatown and Wall Street all fell victim to this, receiving sequels that, while not necessarily awful, were just not necessary. In all of these cases, so much time had gone by that the sequels turned out to be too far removed from their predecessors. Part of this comes from an inability to recapture what was good about the originals, but part of it also comes from irrelevance. Unless the film is able to age with the audience, it loses any sense of relevance for them, even if they were alive at the time the original was released. This is the reason why T2 Trainspotting succeeds where many others gave failed.
It’s been 20 years since Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) left his friends and made off with the money they made in the drug deal. Now living in Amsterdam, he returns to Edinburgh to reconnect with the people from his past. Spud (Ewen Bremner) is still addicted to heroin, which has now estranged him from Gail Houston (Shirley Henderson) and his son. Simon (or Sick Boy as he was formerly known) (Jonny Lee Miller) is now a cocaine-addicted pub owner scamming rich men with the help of his Bulgarian girlfriend Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova). Begbie (Robert Carlyle) is serving a 25-year sentence in prison and has been denied parole due to his volatile temper. As Mark reconnects with the past, he is drawn back into the crazy, chaotic life he’s spent the last two decades trying to escape.
What this sequel captures that so many others have not is that delicate balance between respecting the original film without being defined by it. This is not a remake of Trainspotting because the youthful energy and 90s edginess that it had is something that can never be recaptured, at least not by the same cast and crew that originally made it. They’re all older now and the world is a different place from what it was 20 years ago. They’re not the angsty young guys who lived their days precariously with the fiery rebellious spirit of youth any more. They’re old, wearied men who’ve found themselves in dejected states and are looking into the past, wondering how they got here. The triumph of this film is it takes these wretched, downtrodden characters that the first film did such a great job of portraying and embraces their aged conditions, bringing a strong sense of pathos to their stories. Trainspotting ended with a hopeful prospect, suggesting that things might get better for some of these characters, that Renton might turn his life around and make something worthwhile out of it. Now he’s two decades older and, apart from his sobriety, has nothing to show for it but disappointment, emasculation and disillusionment.
As we are reintroduced to Mark we find that he is certainly healthier than he was twenty years ago, but not much happier. He still feels lost and dissatisfied with the state of the world and now finds himself in the midst of a mid-life crisis. He returns to Edinburgh, whether to find comfort, understanding, or escape isn’t clear, and learns that his old mates aren’t faring much better. His reunion with Spud turns out to be a traumatic one as he walks in on him trying to end his miserable existence with a plastic bag wrapped around his head. His reunion with Simon doesn’t turn out much better as the two come to blows. A reunion with Begbie meanwhile is the last thing in the world that Mark wants, and it is one that promises to be as unpleasant as it is inevitable. Anyway, whatever it is that Mark is looking for by returning home, it isn’t long before he finds himself caught up in a web of blackmail, prostitution and revenge.
The film reunites the original cast and they all assume their roles in fascinatingly compelling ways. McGregor is great in his return to the role that made him a star, playing the recovering addict who finds himself drawn back to his former demons and wondering whether life had actually made more sense back in the day. Miller’s Simon is now a deeply bitter, resentful man, harbouring a grievous grudge against his former best mate whom he blames for his station in life. Carlyle plays the psychopathic Begbie with all the ferocity he brought the first time round, except this time there’s an extra layer of weariness and melancholy, much of it due to being estranged from his son, that makes the character more pathetic, and yet somehow sympathetic, than before. The standout performance however is Bremner as Spud, who emerges as something of a secret protagonist. As the most wretched of the four, Bremner is both comically and tragically fragile and resilient and ends up becoming the emotional centre of the film as he is encouraged to chronicle his life in a memoir, thus becoming the author of his own story. Boyle also returns as the director and does an admirable job of reviving the movie’s style with its frantic cuts and stark colours while still giving it a modern edge.
Although the film frequently features brief flashbacks and nods to the events of the first film, it never feels like an attempt to use that film as a crutch or to score nostalgia points. T2 is very much its own film, one that doesn’t need to rely on its predecessor. The allusions to the past are all there to serve the story and are all properly motivated by what the characters are going through. There’s a scene where Mark is on the run through the streets of Edinburgh and we see a quick glimpse of him sprinting down that very same road as seen in the opening scene of the 1996 film. The flashback works the way a memory might, coming into view for a couple of seconds and then disappearing just as quickly, giving us an idea of some of the thoughts going through Mark’s head and making us all the more aware of how far he has come just to end up in (literally and, in some ways, figuratively) the same place. It is astonishing to me that this film was made at all and, even though it might lack some of the bite of the classic, I found it to be an engrossing watch and entirely worthy as a sequel.