It’s been 20 long years since Trainspotting’s motley crew of laddish, narcotized Scotsmen first dope-diarrhead their way into our hearts, but despite the fact that Danny Boyle’s 1996 heroin-dramedy breakout ends on an open ellipses instead of a period, I think it’s safe to say that very few of us ever expected to revisit this world again—at least not on the big screen [author Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting follow-up Porno, of which T2 is a partial adaptation, was released in 2002].
But lo and behold, Boyle has his entire cadre of Edinburgh bruisers have returned: Renton, Sick Boy, Spud, Begbie, Sickbie, Begboy, Begspud, Spudbie, Sickspud, Spudspud, and Kelly Macdonald. So cue up Iggy Pop, because I’m gonna cut to right to [foot] chase. Is T2 Trainspotting necessary? No. Is it good? It’s pretty good. Does it have thoughtful things to say about growing old and growing up? Sure. But is it fun to watch? I guess so. So there you go: APPRAISAL RENDERED.
But hold on. There are bigger things to talk about—namely, the relevancy of the Trainspotting aesthetic in the year 2017. And I don’t mean the film’s look, because TDuece feels every digitally projected pixel like a movie shot by the same director that shot Trance and 127 Hours. Lensed by Anthony Dod Mantel, the sequel’s glossy sheen is even more pronounced when juxtaposed against clips from the original film [appearing here in flashback]. Placed in contrast with the sleek microdot camera angles of TDos, the grimy celluloid film stocks of OG-recipe Trainspotting look positively ancient, like a hand-cranked Edison strip of Topsy the Elephant disappearing in a puff of 10,000 volts of electricity.
But Boyle’s visual approach isn’t the only thing that’s changed radically over the past two decades—though you wouldn’t necessarily know it to look at the actors’ faces. For a bunch of degenerate heroin abusers, TDeux’s flock of dudes have held up surprisingly well. Ewen Bremner’s hapless Spud looks like he’s had the Nosferatu Instagram filter turned up on his face by about a factor of ten, but Ewan McGregor [Renton], Johnny Lee Miller [Sick Boy], and Robert Carlyle [Begbie] all look pretty great for middle age, seeming more like their characters’ older brothers than the same individuals curdled by 20 years of hard living and regret. As for how any of these people’s personalities have changed in the interim, well, that needs to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
The plot: 20 years after absconding with the group’s ill-gotten drug money, Mark Renton has returned home to Edinburgh for good, leaving behind—for reasons that eventually become clear—a quiet post-heroin life in Amsterdam as married financial planner. After a few harsh words and some brief fisticuffs, Renton quickly rekindles his camaraderie with Sick Boy, still stuck in a perpetual dirtbag death-spiral of low-level grifts, drugs, and sexual blackmail. Sick Boy has a young Bulgarian sort-of girlfriend named Veronika [Anjola Nedyalkova] and big plans to open an illegal brothel above his dingy pub, courtesy of redevelopment funds scammed from the EU [where #Brexit fits, I’m not sure].
Renton is quickly and enthusiastically drawn back in, picking old, bad habits as he tries to figure out what the remaining 30 years of his life look like. Meanwhile, sweet-natured Spud continues to deal with on-again, off-again addictions, dipping in and out of the plot and acting more or less as TZwei’s junkie bobblehead mascot. In an unhappy coincidence, resident psychopath Begbie, long incarcerated, has just escaped from prison in an attempt to cosplay Robert De Niro in Cape Fear with Renton as his Nick Nolte. Middle-aged hijinks ensue.
To TDois’s credit, the sequel makes a strong case that it’s really these characters that are at the center of the brand’s appeal, not their addictions. Whereas a big part of the original Trainspotting’s appeal was its totally irresponsible [and awesome!] glorification of heroin, drugs are a relatively minor part of this new Trainspotting—and they aren’t really missed. Gone too is the exotic Euro-tourism of the first film’s downscale Scottish milieu. Here, our view of Edinburgh has been smoothed over with a modern, moneyed aesthetic that’s as much as a commentary on globalization and gentrification as it is referendum on Boyle’s slicked-up evolution as a visual storyteller.
But it’s important, I think, to point out that even though TDau’s characters themselves are mired in nostalgia, the film itself is not. TTvier is a modern movie about time and regret, using footage of its protagonists’ younger selves in a way that recalls Steven Soderbergh’s use of footage from Ken Loach’s Poor Cow in The Limey—also, coincidentally, released in 1996.
TMbili may be bigger than heroin, but I’m not necessarily convinced that Trainspotting, as an idea, is bigger than the 1990s. I obviously can’t speak for everyone, but given my particular age [mid-30s], I hold the original film as a seminal piece of Miramax-era filmmaking, inexorably linked in my mind to its specific time in such a primal, Proustian way that I have trouble escaping it. T2 Trainspotting is good, but sad for reasons both intentional and not. It may be fun in the moment, but the fact remains: relapses are a bummer.