To quote the greeting song we sang in my father’s Cub Scout troop: “Hail, hail, the gang’s all here!” Reuniting on the screen and behind the camera after twenty years away are the main cast and crew of 1996’s seminal arthouse hit Trainspotting (read my retrospective here) a polarizing examination of addiction and its effects on several disaffected Scotland youths. With a visionary mix of visceral editing, a gut-punching soundtrack, startling performances, brilliant visual storytelling, and a roaring blast of a screenplay, Trainspotting made its mark as a standout entry in independent cinema.
Now, with T2 Trainspotting, returning director Danny Boyle takes a more appropriately laid-back (but still ever electric) approach to catching us up with fugitive Mark “Rents” Renton (Ewan McGregor), slickster Simon “Sick Boy” Williamson (Jonny Lee Miller), punching bag Daniel “Spud” Murphy (Ewen Bremner), and the psychotic Francis “Franco” Begbie (Robert Carlyle). Continuing to be based on the Trainspotting novel while incorporating small parts of its sequel Porno (both by author Irvine Welsh, who also returns in his small role as Mikey Forrester), T2 Trainspotting finds us with the four miscreants pushing forty (and above) and looking down the barrel of wasted adulthood, more wondering what to do with their aimless lives and less worried about getting their next heroin fix.
Returning screenwriter John Hodge puts us through familiar paces, at once being self-referential and groundbreaking. Sequels fall often fall into the trap of parodizing its predecessors to the point of inanity, rarely outshining or keeping pace with the original. Thankfully, Boyle and Hodge deftly avoid this trap, evoking images and themes of the first while putting fresh spins on these meta-references without being too jokey or insulting to the canon. We’re not looking for more of the same – I mean, who wants to see a story about four men with a case of drug- or violence-addled arrested development? Instead, we get a fairly truthful (and you know what they say about the truth – it hurts), simple, and logical extension of their stories.
There are, of course, visual parallels and dialogue references to Trainspotting, which devotees should be warmly content with and happy to see. But if one expects a rehash of old stories and the kind of youthful exuberance and vitality which Trainspotting exuded in every frame, they’ll be let down. Instead, T2 Trainspotting – so named “T2” as a pop culture nod to James Cameron and Terminator 2, the likes of which would likely have been shredded in one of Mark and Sick Boy’s many film deconstruction conversations – is one of those sequels to show actual growth and a deepening of its characters. Hodge’s script takes them away from the trappings of what was known of them and throws them headlong into the “what if,” taking bets on whether they’ll find a way to sink or swim.
To reacquaint you with our anti-heroes, when we last saw them they’d just scored £16,000 in a heroin deal described as “the dodgiest scam in a lifetime of dodgy scams,” after which Mark absconds with all the cash and leaves the UK for good. The rest? “Sick Boy had reinvented himself as a pimp and a pusher,” Mark narrates shortly before his massive betrayal; Begbie’s in a rage, smashing up a hotel room, imagining each piece he breaks is Mark’s face; and Spud secretly receives his share of the loot, but remains a heroin addict.
T2 Trainspotting shows the four finally accepting who they are as people. Spud’s never risen above his station the way he described in one of his final lines of the first film, and he knows he’s been a terrible person to both his estranged love Gail (Shirley Henderson) and their son Fergus (Kyle Fitzpatrick). He’s gone so far in his addiction that our reintroduction to him involves a suicide attempt which gets foiled by Mark, who seems to want to improve his friends’ lives to make amends for screwing them out of their share of the drug money. However, Mark’s got problems of his own, which is why he’s returned to Edinburgh in the first place. Both films begin with him running – the first has him being chased after committing theft, the second finds him on a treadmill and in great health, but maybe figuratively running from something else – and he hasn’t stopped.
In the intervening years, Mark ran to Amsterdam to escape Begbie’s vengeance, and rightfully so; when we catch up to Begbie, he’s serving a 25-year sentence for murder. He’s just been denied parole, but in a last-ditch effort to get out and live some kind of life while he still can, he engineers and executes an extremely cockeyed – yet hilariously daring – daylight escape. Reuniting with his wife June (Pauline Lynch) and son Frank Jr. (Scot Greenan), he dives right back into his life of theft and violence; he still remains the only character who has ever been true to his nature, with everyone else trying to make themselves over into something they’re not, the largest example of which still stands as Sick Boy.
Sick Boy was, is, and always will be a con man, although he’s never fully accepted it. He’s still the self-styled pimp and pusher, but the only pimping he does is to force his prostitute “girlfriend” Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova) into trysts with unsuspecting punters for blackmail purposes, and the only pushing he does is drinks at a pub he’s inherited from his late aunt (we never see what he does with the marijuana growing in the pub’s basement). But when Mark comes back to make amends, he finally embraces what he is, as he plans on getting even with Mark and giving him straight to Begbie after he’s done with him.
Compared to Boyle’s more experimental films, T2 Trainspotting is relatively low-key, maturing as it must alongside its characters. By no means is that to be taken as “conventional” or “boring,” two adjectives which could never describe his films; his storytelling and point-of-view devices are still engaging, and his circus ringleader-like trademark of organization-amidst-chaos hasn’t dulled in the slightest. Hodge’s script highlights the pains of getting older and the expected behavior to go along with it, with each performer showing the toll the years have taken upon them, their families, and their worldviews.
T2 Trainspotting is like having a meal with your old friends – some of whom have changed for the better, some for the worse. However, you’re always happy to see them, at least until the knives come out and someone’s in mortal danger. Even then, you can’t wait to see what will become of them, wanting everything to be all right but knowing it might not be. It’s a rare slice of nostalgia which hasn’t been given a bombastic update or facelift; it steps back and invites you to come along on an unfolding ride toward an unknown destination. Diane (Kelly Macdonald) says in the first film, “The world is changing. Music is changing. Even drugs are changing.” As if to prove her point, T2 Trainspotting shows the foursome’s world changed and the drugs taking a backseat to other addictions, but the music – and the film itself – is still awash with vibrancy and verve.