The boys are back in Edinburgh town in Danny Boyle’s oddly titled, long-awaited, and long-belated sequel to his iconic 1996 film Trainspotting, an inventive, brash, exuberant adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s 1993 novel about a group of Scottish heroin addicts. It was a breakout success for Boyle and star Ewan McGregor, and the rare movie that managed to be both timeless and wholly of its moment.
It hit screens at just the right time to benefit from the 1990s pop cultural zeitgeist of Cool Britannia and Britpop, when bands such as Blur, Oasis, Pulp, and the Verve had considerable chart success on both sides of the Atlantic. Appropriately, Trainspotting boasts one of the great jukebox soundtracks of all time, which beautifully dovetails with the film’s rousing, instantly memorable visuals. McGregor’s “Choose life” voice-over, accompanying his character’s carefree flight from the police and set to Iggy Pop’s classic track “Lust for Life,” forms one of the greatest openers in recent film history.
And now, 21 years later, we revisit the surviving members of the original crew: Mark Renton (McGregor), Simon aka Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), Danny aka Spud (Ewen Bremner), and Begbie (Robert Carlyle). When we last left Renton at the end of the first film, he’d absconded with the proceeds of a drug deal that was meant to be split among the four of them. After leaving Spud his share, Renton fled Edinburgh for Amsterdam to fully kick his heroin addiction and lead a clean life.
When we first encounter Renton, in the first of many sequences that nostalgically update iconic scenes from the original, he’s running furiously on a treadmill, clearly harkening back to Trainspotting’s kinetic opener. Facing an impending divorce, and generally dissatisfied with the depressing rut his life is in, he decides to return to Edinburgh to look up his old pals, whom he hasn’t contacted for more than two decades, for reasons that are never quite clear (nostalgia? guilt?). In fact, such an action would seem to be ill-advised, considering that he double-crossed his buddies, and it seems safe to assume that they would still hold a grudge over it, to say the least.
As for the others, Sick Boy has replaced his heroin habit with coke, and now works with his business partner and sometime girlfriend, Bulgarian sex worker Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova), on a scheme where she’s used as bait to blackmail horny one-percenters and community pillars. Spud, still the sweet-natured yet pathetic guy he was in the first film, continues to struggle with heroin addiction, stuck in a vicious cycle of recovery and relapse. His despondency over his lot in life is such that he reconnects with Renton when the latter saves Spud from a suicide attempt. Begbie is doing time in the slammer when we meet him again, but an act of self-mutilation sends him to the hospital, allowing him to escape prison. Begbie, an explosive, volatile loose cannon 20 years ago, is even more so here, almost to the point of psychopathology, such is his thirst for revenge against Renton for his betrayal.
The film doesn’t have so much a plot as more a loose, shaggy-dog feel and a fitful forward momentum, aping the relentless, perpetual motion of Trainspotting. The script by John Hodge (who also wrote the first film) often feels like delayed gratification, taking as long as possible to get to the inevitable moment when all four of its main protagonists finally come together—or more precisely, violently clash—in the same scene. It’s almost a given that T2 Trainspotting doesn’t have a prayer of equaling, let alone surpassing, the quality, surprise, and cultural impact of the original. It’s so heavily dependent on the 1996 film, with all its slightly updated references to—and clips from—Trainspotting, that the new film mostly comes across as two hours of fan service and indulgent devotion to viewer nostalgia (almost to the point of pandering).
Because of its inability, indeed refusal, to stand on its own without using memories of Trainspotting as a stylistic and narrative crutch, T2 feels cautious and restrained in a way that’s antithetical to the first film’s spirit, despite its furiously busy visual arsenal, courtesy of cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, who throws everything and the kitchen sink at our eyeballs: jittery freeze-frames, back projection, even Snapchat filters. It also misses many opportunities to incisively comment on contemporary realities, other than the most superficial grafting of modern-day references; for example, in Renton’s updated “Choose Life” soliloquy—largely an indictment of social media behavior—now told to Veronika during a restaurant conversation. In the age of Brexit and the defeated Scottish independence referendum, T2’s lack of engagement with these issues makes it feel out of step with the times.
But clearly, that’s not the point of this film. Even though T2, like most other sequels, especially one arriving two decades later, fails to fully justify its own existence, it still has its fun moments—Renton and Sick Boy’s credit card robbery of rabid anti-Catholic pub dwellers—and the four principal actors give spirited enough performances to make it suitably entertaining. Still, one wishes the filmmakers had opted for less nostalgia and derivations and more originality and cultural relevance.