I find it a little odd that the T2: Trainspotting is about trying to go back and relive the past, considering the entire movie is an attempt to go back and relive the past. It probably doesn’t help that for many of the people involved with this production, cast and crew, haven’t had the level of success they did when the original came out. Sure, Johnny Lee Miller has his Sherlock knockoff on ABC, Danny Boyle won an Oscar before fading back into obscurity (although Steve Jobs was phenomenal, even if no one saw it), and Ewan McGregor had a long string of great hits and performances before even he kind of fizzled out (although he’s trying to make a comeback this year, between this and Beauty and the Beast). Reliving the past has some pros and cons, but mostly veers towards the latter, leaving you disappointed at best and emotionally destroyed at worst. This is the conclusion the film also tries to come to, albeit muddily. It never makes the points it wants to make as well as it should, and oftentimes relies too heavily on nostalgia to make those points. However, when this film is at its best, it reminds you of why you wanted a sequel to the original classic in the first place: because these are great actors playing great characters being shown through great filmmaking.
It’s been twenty years since Mark “Rent Boy” Renton (Ewan McGregor) got himself off heroin and made off into the night with the money stolen with his friends. After suffering heart issues at the gym in his new home of Amsterdam, Renton decides to return home to Edinburgh to visit his recently-widowed father and make peace with his former band of merry drug addicts and criminals. Daniel “Spud” Murphy (Ewan Bremner) is still addicted to heroin, divorced from his former girlfriend, and unable to see his child, and has turned to writing to keep his mind sharp. Simon “Sick Boy” Williamson is addicted to cocaine, running the Port Sunshine Pub, blackmailing important figures in the community with the help of his Bulgarian girlfriend Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova), and dreaming of opening a brothel with her. And Francis Begbie (Robert Carlyle) has escaped from prison, hoping to begin his crime spree again with his son, and longing for the day he gets the chance to murder the man who wronged him, Mark Renton.
For those unaware of the first movie, here’s a brief rundown: the film follows four heroin addicts in the daily goings-on of their lives, scored by a hip soundtrack and slick editing. It became one of the most acclaimed and greatest movies of all time. The Brits have ranked it as the tenth-greatest British film of all time, and it may be making an appearance on my currently running Top 100 Films list in coming weeks (spoiler alert). It was a film about something while being about nothing. It made you feel for four horrid characters and understand how cool they were for bucking society while also providing one of the greatest lectures on why heroin is bad in film history. It shows horrible consequences for the heroin use that the characters participate in, but does it with its tongue firmly in its cheek, keeping the film from becoming as depressingly awful as, say, Requiem for a Dream. If you’re wondering why I’m explaining all of this, it’s because it is absolutely impossible to understand T2: Trainspotting without watching the first. Hell, I settled for a brief recap before seeing it, and I got lost a few times. This is precisely the reason that the film is a muddled result, filled with as many great moments as there are bad.
Let’s start with that sequel reasoning. Look, I love the original film a great amount too. Anyone with taste loves the original. So callbacks and follow-ups are, indeed, necessary. But you can’t lie the fate of the entire plot at the feet of the original. Using the other famous T2 as an example (Terminator, for those of you lost right now), Terminator 2 makes several callbacks to the original film, and is an excellent follow-up to the original film. However, it doesn’t put the entire plot at the feet of the original. You don’t need to see the first Terminator to follow the second-everything makes sense and can be inferred through the sequel’s expert storytelling. That’s the problem with Trainspotting 2: everything about it requires understanding the original film, from the filmmaking to the story itself. And that’s pretty difficult considering the original film is pretty much about nothing to begin with. What’s worse, the film doesn’t really seem worried about following it’s own logic, it’s more concerned with attempting to recapture the magic, without putting in the work for it. Take a look at the filmmaking for an example. In the original film, the rapid, incoherent editing and stylistic cinematography were subversive, used as a “f*ck you” to the establishment that had failed our heroes and driven them to rebel. Or the scene where Renton performs an updated “Choose Life” speech. It’s still got the same heart and delivery that made the original a classic, but it feels less impactful. When the original monologue was performed, it was a list of things that would seemingly make the characters “sell out,” when in reality it was a list of things they could never have because of their heroin use. Here, it’s a list of things that make modern society fake that they’ve indulged in. It’s an interesting idea, but listening to a forty-something rant about Facebook is inherently less interesting than hearing a twenty-something pretend he never wants to get married (when in reality he’s lost his sex drive to drug use) This film’s problem is that it’s in no way as subversive as its predecessor, be it in filmmaking or in the story itself.
The film’s main premise is that the characters have begun to long for the past, which does have some promise in its premise. Everything these characters loved is a thing of the past. I mean, look at the music they listened to. Since the release of the original film, many of the punk rockers that our heroes idolized (and whose works made up the original soundtrack, which is widely considered to be one of the best in history) have died. David Bowie is dead. Lou Reed (whose song, “Perfect Day,” is also heard in this film, slowed down to dramatic effect, and still remains one of my all-time favorite songs) is dead. Ironically, Iggy Pop is still alive, despite claims to the contrary in the original. It’s understandable that these characters would miss the joys of the past instead of the malaise of the current days. However, considering how terrible their lives previously were, it’s impossible to understand why they’re nostalgic. They constantly rag on each other for missing this past where they were miserable, and yet continue to make the same mistakes, despite supposedly learning the error of their ways to some degree twenty years earlier. They’re working with such a broad theme so incoherently, it makes it difficult to follow, care, or enjoy their current plight in the slightest.
However, this isn’t to say that this film is bad. I know I just spent a thousand words saying this film is failing to live up to the predecessor, but that’s only because it’s trying so hard to be the original. When looked at on its own, there’s a lot to appreciate. The editing may feel uninspired or unimportant, but it’s still sharp and cool to look at. And speaking of cool to look at: that cinematography. Sure, occasionally they put the camera in odd locations to film faces, the way they did in the original, and it looks heinous or fake, but then there’s the shadow work. The film plays with shadows in such a unique and interesting way I wished the film had done more like that than attempt to recreate the original. Two shots come to mind, one representing death early on in the film and one coming at the midway point featuring Spud, which may end up as some of the best images of the year. Nothing in this movie is as great as the best scenes in the original, but there are some moments of inspiration that feel right, including one fantastic scene in a Unionist bar that utilizes that sense of subversive “f*ck-you-ness” and humor that made the original a success. And when it comes to the soundtrack, it may not be a beloved classic in twenty years’ time, but I’ll never get tired of “Lust for Life,” “Radio Ga Ga,” “Relax,” or “Shotgun Mouthwash,” keeping the film move along at an electric pace. I know that’s not a long list, and that I’ve simplified the things I’ve liked about this movie, but that’s because I’m already 1500 words in and I’m trying to stick to the basics for you all.
I suppose I can prove my appreciation by praising the cast, because my god, is everyone on point in this movie. It’s actually amazing they were able to so flawlessly get back into the mindsets of these characters. The only precedent I can think of is Sylvester Stallone in Creed, but even he was just kind of playing himself; I’m pretty sure none of these actors are actually heroin addicts. McGregor so easily slips back into Mark that it feels like visiting an old friend. He’s charming, skeezy, funny, and handsome, all at the same time. It’s the charm that’s turned him into a movie star over the past twenty years, in a way his costars never managed to enjoy. Well, Johnny Lee Miller sort of has, thanks to a beloved stage version of Frankenstein and his current show Elementary. You can tell he’s now a star, because he perhaps the second-largest role in the movie. He also has grown as an actor, because his performance as Sick Boy is much more memorable here than it was in the original (he’s the friend I most often forget from the group). Bremner still looks lanky and dopey as Spud, but here he gives him a heart that makes you feel for him. And as a side note, the author plotline leads right up to the cliché I hate more than anything, but stops just short, which makes me happier than anything else in this film. And as for Begbie, the best character in the original, I have mixed feelings. Not because Robert Carlyle isn’t great-he was the best actor of the 1990s, with two great performances in both Trainspotting and The Full Monty, although he is clearly out of practice (thanks a lot, Once Upon a Time). It’s just his character has all the crassness and volatility that made us love him, but focuses it towards making him a villain instead of the other side of the coin of Renton. It’s a sad character choice, considering how great the character was when he was complex, but I’d take clichéd Begbie over no Begbie at all. Outside of the main four, the best performances come from the two most important females in the film. It doesn’t make much sense to bring back Diane, the woman who seduced Renton twenty years ago before-spoiler-revealed she was fifteen, but the irony of having her be a lawyer is hysterical. And I really won’t complain about the presence of Kelly Macdonald; if anyone from the original has actually become a better actor over the course of twenty years, it’s Macdonald, who is fantastic in her one-off scene. And the new discovery that is Nedyalkova provides a sense of irony and sarcasm that made the original great; she’s gorgeous, funny, sharp, and natural, which makes even the most painful scenes in the movie worth watching. Even if this movie were terrible, it would still be worth recommending based on the strength of this cast alone.
I think the problem with this film is that it’s more concerned with looking cool rather than just being cool the way the original was. It’s still got a strong cast playing their characters well, and there’s a ton to like, but it just feels stale in a way a Trainspotting movie should never be. It’s a collection of scenes, ranging from good to average, that never work as a coherent whole, but are enjoyable nonetheless. I guess that when it comes down to it, the lesson the film is trying to teach us really is true: you can’t recapture the past, no matter how hard you try. But kudos to Trainspotting for trying.