Trainspotting is one of the most iconic, influential British films ever made. Danny Boyle’s movie about taking heroin and ‘choosing life’ defined a generation like no other. Making sequels to those kinds of movies – the ones that perennially adorn student walls and define an era with every single scene – usually doesn’t seem like a good idea. But T2 uses that baggage to carve out, along with the passage of time, a surprisingly introspective follow-up.
T2 is both an epilogue and companion piece to the original, with so much of the script in active conversation with the events of the first movie, the past. Renton has been living in Amsterdam – working in financial sector, no less – ever since he screwed over his mates at the end of Trainspotting. But after suffering a mild cardiac ‘incident’ in the opening scene, he returns to Scotland to confront those he left behind – his father, now a widower, and of course, the friends he betrayed.
It’s fascinating to catch-up with these characters two decades later, and find that so little has changed. Sick Boy’s powers, along with his hairline, have waned; he’s stuck pulling pints in a pub on the edge of nowhere. Begbie is as violent and unpredictable as ever, but instead of holding court down the local, he’s spent the last twenty years in the nick. And Spud – well, he never escaped his skag addiction.
Renton returns and attempts to reconnect with Spud and Sick Boy. He desperately wants to make things right, but is quickly drawn into Sick Boy’s latest scheme: conververting his dead-end boozer into a brothel. As with the first movie, the plot is largely incidental to the relationships and characters wants to revisit. Not one of the is successful, happy, or even content with their present lot in life. It’s a melancholic story, with Renton hopelessly trying to navigate the future by confronting his past.
Jonny Lee Miller (Sick Boy) and Robert Carlyle (Begbie) both deliver larger-than-life performances. Out of all the characters, they are the two that have changed the least; they still believe they’re invincible, entitled to it all, but the swagger now feels hollow. You see Sickboy bleaching what little hair he has left. He’s not as cool as he was on that iconic poster, and the movie wants to take him down.
Ewan McGregor delivers a less showy performance as Renton, who initially seems much more mature and content than his mates, but as the film progresses we see that’s equally confused by how his life unravelled. McGregor imbues with charisma and charm, but also cynicism and insecurity. And there’s even space in T2 to give Ewen Bremner’s lovable Spud more of a character arc than afforded in the original, taking him from hopeless smackhead to budding writer – though its eventual conclusion feels a touch contrived.
Although frequently wistful, T2 still occasionally pulses with the euphoria that defined the original. There are laugh-out-loud sequences, such as Renton and Sick Boy stealing dozens of credit cards; surrealistic interludes, where reality fades and dreamlike logic takes hold; and shocking and violent skirmishes, typically involving Begbie. All of it is set to another rousing soundtrack including The Clash and Blondie. There’s still room for Iggy Pop and Underworld, but the latter are remixed and used with purpose.
At its best, T2 – like Renton – is concerned with facing the past and its former self. In one pointed scene, Sick Boy’s girlfriend, who’s in her early twenties, asks Renton the meaning of ‘Choose Life’. (It’s something she’s heard Sick Boy reminiscing about.) Renton explains how they once parodied the slogan from a well-intentioned health campaign from the early-nineties, before launching into an updated rendition. He trains his sights on designer drugs, zero-hour contracts, Snapchat, Instagram, and more. Initially, it seems as impassioned as the original, but by its conclusion, Renton seems vaguely embarrassed by it all; it’s something they used to be into at the time, he dryly remarks. You can sense screenwriter John Hodge examining his work of two decades ago. He simultaneously adds to the counter-cultural manifesto he set down in the original, while also undercutting it and distancing himself from its message. Like so much of the movie, it echoes the original but is unafraid to challenge and strip down those memories. After all, things didn’t work like they should have.