OnScreen Review: 'T2 Trainspotting'

Ken Jones

  • OnScreen Chief Film Critic

When Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting came out in 1996, it became a cultural phenomenon and one of the defining films of the 90s, partly propelled by its soundtrack.  It was based on a novel by Irvine Welsh and even received an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.  There has also been talk for years about doing a sequel (Welsh himself wrote a sequel in 2002, titled Porno).  Boyle consistently stated that he wanted to wait until the actors had aged to the proper point in life to portray the characters as older versions of themselves, by about twenty years.  Using only some loose story threads from Welsh’s sequel, Boyle and frequent screenwriter collaborator John Hodge have brought practically everyone back 20 years later for T2 Trainspotting to check in on the middle-aged versions of Renton, Sick Boy, Spud, and Begbie.

After living abroad in Amsterdam for the last 20 years after he split town with the £16,000 that he and his friends made off of a heroin deal at the end of Trainspotting, Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) returns to his hometown of Edinburgh, Scotland.  After 20 years, some things have changed, and some things remain the same.  Spud (Ewen Bremner) is still struggling with a heroin addiction, and is estranged from his wife Gail (Shirley Henderson) and their young son, Fergus.  Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), now going by his real name Simon, inherited his aunt’s old bar, is running a blackmail scheme on the side with his girlfriend Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova), and has traded in heroin for cocaine.  Frank ‘Franco’ Bebgie (Robert Carlyle) is in the middle of a 25 year jail sentence and as much of a hothead and loose cannon as ever.  Renton returns home, hoping to find something significant in his life and to mend fences with Spud and Simon, which proves to be more complicated than he envisioned.  Things are further complicated by Begbie escaping from prison and finding out that Mark is back in town.

Usually, when a sequel comes so many years after the last film, it’s not a good sign; Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull comes immediately to mind.  Sequels in general, but especially sequels of beloved, landmark, generational-defining films, can be fraught with peril.  It’s easy to fall into the trap of cinematic nostalgia, merely repeating the beats of the original without saying anything new and having no reason to exist beyond a studio’s corporate greed.  It seems like Boyle and company have returned to make this for the right reasons, though.  Weirdly enough, it seems like they have leaned into many of the pitfalls that exist for sequels.  It actually succeeds mostly because of it.

Boyle mentioned in an interview I heard that he approached this as the two films having a conversation with each other, and this comes across in several ways.  Themes from the first film are repeated with slight twists and rearrangements.   Renton has an immediate attraction to Simon’s quasi-girlfriend, who is significantly younger than both of them, though at least legal unlike how Diane (Kelly MacDonald) was in the first film.  A financial opportunity results in another opportunity for betrayal when Mark and Simon attempt to go in on a business venture together.  Visually, Boyle recreates a few moments that are out of the original film, including a moment where Mark is running and nearly gets hit by a car.  Boyle also overlays and includes clips and moments from the first film that are like memories that come flooding back to the characters.  In a way, it reminded me of Manchester by the Sea, which had long scenes of flashbacks; it’s not that the techniques are similar, but that the past surrounds these characters to the point of occasionally permeating the screen and overtaking their present.

Another connection between the two films is the importance of the soundtrack.  While this soundtrack is unlikely to be as popular as the original, which was so big it spawned a 2nd soundtrack album, the musical beats of the soundtrack connect very well with the events in the film.  When Mark returns home, he visits his old bedroom and pulls out his Iggy Pop “Lust for Life” record and begins to play it, but quickly stops it after about two seconds.  It’s perhaps a bit of foreshadowing of how easy and enticing it may be for him later on to slip into his old way of life with Simon and Spud.  Going home can mean encountering some ghosts.  And that song brings back some ghosts.

There’s some emotional heft to the film too.  Spud, surprisingly, is the emotional center of everything.  He is the most sympathetic figure of the bunch too, so he’s easy to root for since he wants to kick heroin but also can’t seem to get out of his own way.  An opening introduction to him where he opines about Daylight Savings screwing up his life is heartbreaking but also amusing.  The film also mines the relationship between Mark and Simon, and the bonds of friendship and shared history together.  There’s an odd intimacy between them from having shared needles and women together in the past.  Lastly, with Begbie out of prison, he has a complicated relationship with his college-age son, who Begbie wants to join the “family profession” of breaking and entering while his son just wants to go off to college.

One of the most iconic aspects of Trainspotting was the “Choose Life” speech that Renton gives.  It’s cynical to the core; the perspective of a 26 year-old junkie commenting on the “normal” life of average people.  Ironically, most people ignore the end where he basically sells that out and says he cheats his friends in order to pull himself up in order to have that normal life.  Here, when he gives his “Choose Life 2” speech, it’s a bit more seasoned with age, tinge with a bit of regret, and still a little cynical, though in a different way, as it points out how so much more of the “normal” life has become cynical and pointless in the last 20 years.  By the end of it, he gets to saying, “Choose unfulfilled promise and wishing you'd done it all differently.  Choose never learning from your own mistakes.  Choose watching history repeat itself.  Choose the slow reconciliation towards what you can get, rather than what you always hoped for.  Settle for less and keep a brave face on it.”  These are older, more mature versions of the same characters, and where they have ended up in their 40s feels like a natural progression from where they were in their 20s, but being adrift at 26 looks very different from being adrift at 46. 

At one point, Mark, Simon, and Spud return to visit the Highlands to honor the memory of their friend Tommy, who died in the first film because of AIDS.  Simon comments to Mark that “it's just nostalgia!  You're a tourist in your own youth.  We were young; bad things happened.”  There’s a fine line between nostalgia and reflection.  Rather than just being an exercise in cinematic nostalgia, T2 Trainspotting chooses retrospection and contemplation.  Boyle toes the line of engaging with the past rather than purely indulging it and just playing the hits, so to speak.  It’s not a film (or soundtrack) that is going to resonate in the same way the first movie did, and “choose reflection” may not be as catchy as “choose life” but it is a necessary aspect of a healthy life.  Much of Mark’s “Choose Life 2” speech is geared toward things that we fill our time with in the present, pointless things that clog our Facebook timelines.  A healthy relationship with the past means making peace with it and not having to run from it, regardless of what may be back there.  And that can mean enjoying “Lust for Life” on full blast rather than just two seconds of it.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars