When I think back to the person I was 20 years ago, I’m amazed by how much I’ve changed. Things that I once thought were fundamental truths are laughable to me now. As true as that is, though, at my core, I’m still the same person in many other ways. That observation is at the heart of Danny Boyle’s T2 Trainspotting, the sequel to his 1996 break-out hit. We check in with Renton, Sickboy, Spud, and Begbie two decades after the heroin fueled events of Trainspotting. It’s like visiting old friends you haven’t even thought of in years, and discovering that despite all the time that has passed, you still get along like you just saw each other yesterday. Despite a few missteps, Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge have captured the free-wheeling fun, sick humor, and pathos present in the original.
The screenplay for Trainspotting was Hodge’s adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s novel of the same name. This time, Hodge is adapting Welsh’s sequel to Trainspotting, titled Porno, while also using characters and elements from the first book. Porno was written in 2002, and takes place ten years after the events of the first novel. T2 moves things forward even more, and despite 20 years having gone by, we discover that echoes of the past are ever present for these characters.
T2’s greatest strength is that it retains the energy and madness of the original. The writing and direction turn with unbelievable deftness from near tragedy to dark laughs in seconds. Early in the film, Spud decides to end it all because he can’t kick the heroin habit that has controlled him for most of his life. His wife has left him, and he no longer sees his son, so Spud decides to tape a bag to his head and die by self-asphyxiation. Meanwhile, Renton has returned home after many years living in Amsterdam. He finds Spud in the act of killing himself, and attempts to rescue his old friend before it’s too late. In a moment every bit as gag inducing as Renton’s trip to the worst toilet in Scotland from the first film, Spud violently vomits into the bag strapped to his head as Renton tries to free him.
Despite its tonal fidelity to the original, T2 does lack a hallmark of that earlier film, and it’s one I sorely missed. It was an ensemble picture, but Trainspotting was Mark Renton’s movie. It was tied so heavily to that character’s point of view, so it was disappointing not to reconnect with Renton in the same way here. T2 fails to provide the inner monolog of Renton. In fact, the character barely speaks a word at all for the first 20 minutes of the movie.
We don’t get as close to Renton as we might like, but it’s a revelation seeing all these actors reprise the roles that launched many of them to bigger things. The 25-year-old Ewan McGregor was full of raw energy playing Renton in the original. His performance in T2 displays 20 years of maturity in his craft. The energy is still there, but McGregor has honed it, becoming subtler. Ewen Bremner as Spud is noticeably older now, and consequently he uses his more weathered face to telegraph the hardships Spud has endured over the years.
Jonny Lee Miller steps back into the role of Sickboy – in his older age, he now prefers his actual name, Simon – with a dark edge that speaks to the betrayal he suffered at the end of the last movie. Renton was able to escape his life in Scotland when he stole the profits from the drug deal that the friends orchestrated all those years ago. The antagonistic relationship between Renton and Simon forms the majority of the plot for T2. They haven’t seen each other in decades, and there is a lot of bad blood between them, but the two men find they need each other in an unhealthy, codependent way.
Simon decides to remodel the pub he’s inherited from his aunt as a high-end brothel to please his girlfriend, Veronika, when the blackmail scheme they’ve been working together falls apart. The only problem with his plan is, of course, money. He doesn’t have any, so he convinces Renton to help him steal it. Their plan leads to a hilarious highlight of the movie as they infiltrate a bar populated by bitter Protestants obsessed with a battle that took place in 1690 between Protestants and Catholics.
If Simon is angry with Renton for stealing the drug deal money 20 years ago, their other partner in crime, Begbie, is downright homicidal over it. Robert Carlyle is back in peak psychopathic mode as Begbie. We find out he’s spent the last two decades rotting away in prison, and has just been denied parole due to his violent temper. The more things change, the more they stay the same. When Begbie successfully escapes, and returns home, he discovers that Renton is back in town. It’s just a matter of time before there is a reckoning, and that inevitable sequence is filled with tense anticipation. Their reunion – which takes place in the stalls of a bathroom, of all places – gives Boyle a chance to show off his stylistic and dramatic flair. He masterfully draws out the suspense as it dawns on each man who the other one is.
T2 is more episodic than its predecessor, another of the film’s weak points. Before his plot intersects with Renton’s, Begbie’s storyline is adrift from the rest of the action. Spud, too, is only tangentially connected to what goes on between Renton and Simon. We also very briefly catch up with Diane Coulston, the former Catholic school girl who had a one night stand with Renton in Trainspotting.
Throughout the movie, Boyle makes references to, and uses footage from, the earlier film to create a wistful mood just on the right side of sentimentality. It’s obvious that the passage of so many years weighs as heavily on the director as it does on his characters. The final scene in T2 is as hopeful, full of promise, and ambiguous as the last scene in Trainspotting. Perhaps we’ll be checking in on these characters in another couple of decades.
Why it got 3.5 stars:
- Fans of the original should love checking in with this group to see where they landed all these years later. T2 matches the wacky fun of Trainspotting, even if it's missing some of the youthful exuberance of it.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- As much as I enjoyed the movie, that title is pretty terrible. I'm not sure why Boyle wanted to reference the second Terminator movie. Maybe there's an inside joke I'm missing.
- Just like Trainspotting, Boyle's soundtrack for T2 is magnificent. He very playfully teases the audience with a half-second of Iggy Pop's Lust for Life before Renton quickly turns it off, the flood of memories just too much to handle.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
Next week, I'm checking in on director Terrence Malick's newest effort. Song to Song is about a complicated love triangle or two, and Malick eschewed his usual method of waiting years between films when he rolled right into production after finishing his 2015 picture Knight of Cups.