Those are the two most resonant words in T2 Trainspotting, the long awaited sequel to the 1996 sleeper hit of the same name. The film focuses on memory – most notably, grudges held over past indiscretions, and growing old. As such, the bones of the story are very relatable. All in all, each of us has been crossed by friends or family in some way in the distant past, be it a large betrayal or small slight. And, unless you’re some kind of immortal being, you, as well as I, are getting old and showing it. It’s inevitable. I am nearly the same age as the mainstay characters of T2: Renton, Sickboy, and Spud (Begbie is a few years older). This means, if you can do simple math, that I was also a similar age when the original film was released in 1996.
Trainspotting is one of my absolute favorite films due to its direction, music, acting, editing. and pacing (boy is this movie smooth, it transitions from scene to scene so efficiently). I like it even in spite of the subject matter: heroin addicts and their exploits, be they humorous, tragic, or treacherous. The depravity of the characters could only be shown to us through an expressionist’s lens. It’s a sort of fantastic reality, in which an overdose looks like literally sinking through the floor, unable to climb out. Or, digging through the filthiest of toilets to find opium suppositories, again fantastically portrayed as something more akin to Arthurian lore than reality would permit, and thus saving us from actually vomiting during the scene. All of which has to do with Renton’s motivations of nihilism/hedonism and his efforts to please only himself. The story is intercut with moments involving Spud’s wavering love life and deliberately unsuccessful search for work, Sickboy’s obsession with Sean Connery and his passive aggressive attempts to one-up Renton at any turn, and Begbie’s own addiction to hurting people, the only thing he excels at.
So why would a nice, naive, square young man such as I (in 1996) hold the first film up as a favorite? I think it’s because, though ultimately for me a cautionary tale, it’s told without hell-fire judgement. The characters are drawn realistically, with all the pain and humor that you and I have, but in this film, slightly exaggerated through director Danny Boyle’s somewhat surrealist lens. Being a visually-minded person, I first look for art direction and camera work in film to be interesting and striking. So if the visuals work well, I then focus on the character work, such as if they are in any way redeemable. And the answer here is, surprisingly, yes. Trainspotting does meet this criteria. I don’t have to agree with the actions of a character to find that character compelling.
So, when I learned that T2 Trainspotting was greenlit, I was both interested and cautious. Danny Boyle had a slightly rough go of it in Hollywood after the success of his first two films, Shallow Grave and Trainspotting. His following films (A Life Less Ordinary, The Beach) were strange and interesting, with only the Dicaprio vehicle finding an audience. Next, Boyle found much success with 28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire, and 127 Hours; especially Slumdog, which garnered him accolades upon accolades, including 8 Oscars®. In the meantime, a sequel to the novel had been written, again, by Irvine Welsh called Porno. A reunion of sorts of the main characters of Trainspotting, there was NO WAY that the studios would greenlight a film titled Porno. And the novel didn’t seem to work in total for film. Attempts were made to adapt the novel, but it wasn’t until Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge returned to Edinburgh, Scotland to revitalize their quest to bring T2 to screen that something began to truly take form.
Skip ahead to early 2017. The T2 Trainspotting trailer had just dropped, and it seemed fine, if not a little awkward. There were callbacks to the original film beats – and Iggy Pop, of course, along with new music over the trailer (Wolf Alice’s “Silk,” which was promptly put into heavy rotation in my iTunes). But something of the editing didn’t seem too “on”. An off-rhythm lead the trailer from start to finish. This concerned me, but barely – only because trailers are often misrepresentations of the film itself. So, it did not deter me from wanting to see the film.
Back in 1996, I had seen the first film when it came to Canyon Crest Cinemas in Riverside, CA. I later procured the soundtrack and poster (which is currently hanging in my office as I write this). I bought the DVD, loaned it out to a friend who scratched it, had him replace it with the director’s cut DVD, and eventually upgraded to Blu-ray (sadly, there is no director’s cut on Blu-ray). Suffice it to say, this is a very important film in my collection. Which brings us to T2 Trainspotting.
We had been eagerly awaiting T2 to hit our local cinema here in South TX, to no avail! Why would a cinema feature posters of a film without showing said film? This seemed to be the case with T2. But on a whim, my wife checked the local listing and struck gold! There it was, playing at just one theater, and we went the very next day; “opening day” as it were (a full 2 weeks after it had been widely released).
My experience with watching T2 was not unpleasant. But unlike the first film, I have only seen it once, and have not marinated in it. It seems though, that John Hodge cracked what nut needed cracking, and the meat inside was, for me, mostly – if not all – satisfactory.
WARNING: THIS SECTION CONTAINS POSSIBLE SPOILERS
Renton (Ewan McGregor) returns to Edinburgh after living abroad for nigh on twenty years, having suffered a mild heart attack, no doubt effects from having been a junkie in his early 20s. As this new tale involves memory, T2 uses both newly shot and previous footage from Trainspotting. It seems that these characters’ friendship goes back much further than maybe expected, to when they were but wee lads in primary school, with Begbie the oldest, having been held back some years. It never occurred to me that they had roots in time so deep. But why wouldn’t they? Irvine Welsh also explored this in a prequel novel called Skagboys, having elements which seem to have been touched on in this new film, including Sickboy and Renton deciding to first try heroine as tweens.
But now we see Spud (Ewan Bremner) as he struggles with homelessness, addiction, and his endeavors to reconcile with his ex. Feeling so much like a failure, he attempts to take his own life, only to be rescued by Renton. In the meantime, Sickboy, (Jonny Lee Miller) referred to now by his given name, Simon, is in deep with a blackmail scheme that finds his girlfriend Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova) luring high profile clients into compromising situations primed to exploit for his financial gain, mainly to fuel his addiction to cocaine. And Begbie (Robert Carlyle), locked away in prison, denied parole due to his violent temper, finds a way to escape and return home to his wife and now grown son, with whom their relationship is on the thinnest of ice.
Paths eventually cross with all of the mainstay characters. As said with Spud, it’s a reluctant, but ultimately welcome homecoming. With Simon, Renton’s visit is as strained as ever, resulting in all out aggression between the two; it’s something we’ve not seen in the previous film, but is a direct result of Renton’s betrayal of his mates at its conclusion. Begbie’s return to his once-upon-a-time mates is an ever growing juggernaut of impending doom. Diane (Kelly MacDonald), Renton’s levelheaded but once-bad-boy-loving ex-girlfriend, even makes an appearance as a barrister who aids Simon when he’s in a bit of a sticky wicket with the law. Other minor characters make welcome appearances here and there, and pad out the film nicely, even adding to it some helpful emotional depth. Along the way, relationships are forged and reforged, some on faulty premises. New schemes are put into action to usually comical results, but in the end, some bonds can only be broken by true spite, as is the case of Begbie’s rage. Where once we saw him as a buffoon/monster, here we see him only as a monster who knows better, but who thinks he must continue on his course in spite of knowing it will lead to nowhere good. This is no clearer illustrated than when he finally reconciles with his son, in a scene of suspicious tenderness that ends with Begbie leaving to confront Renton with threat of violence.
I keep thinking that the theme of this film isn’t so much nostalgia, or midlife crisis and remembering youth, than it is about consequences. “I Remember…” is the mantra that covers every cause and effect: pride, betrayal, forgiveness, love, sadness and, like in the original, hope for a better life within reach.
T2 Trainspotting, for me is a worthy successor to the first film. But it is not, and cannot be the same. Wherein Trainspotting had the smoothest of transitions, T2 doesn’t attempt to emulate the style, rhythm, and pacing of its 1996 predecessor. Though the style is informed by it, but more mature, possibly more confident in its presentation as to not need to insist that “it’s just like the one that you already like”. It simply feels a bit more grown up than before. Danny Boyle and Co. don’t reinvent the wheel here. They just followed the trail to where the wheel rolled, dusted it off, and gave it another push.