Being Scottish I subscribe to the unwritten rule that my favourite film either has to be Trainspotting or Braveheart, personally I chose Trainspotting. Now, 20 years after the original, the long talked about sequel has come around, I had high hopes for it and while it was never going to live up to the freshness of the original, it never set out to. Instead we got a solid follow-up that took us back into this world and showed us what happened when you choose life, but life doesn’t want anything to do with you.
In the 20 years since Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) ripped off his so-called mates he’s been living in Amsterdam, Spud (Ewen Bremner) has been trying, and failing, to live as a husband and father and has fallen back into heroin use, Sick-Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) has been running a shite pub while on the sidelines dealing in blackmail porn with his Bulgarian girlfriend Veronica (Anjela Nedyalkova), that is when he’s not using cocaine, and Begbie (Robert Carlyle) has been behind bars after getting arrested at the end of the first film. Against his better judgement, Renton returns home looking to make amends, only to find that everyone hates him and for good reason, however Sick-Boy offers to take him in on a project he’s making and even though Renton can see it’s a trap, a combination of a harsh home-life and taking a liking to Veronica, he agrees to help out, getting Spud involved as well.
Sick-Boy’s plan is to renovate the pub into a brothel with Veronica as the Madame, however he needs start-up money and someone not on cocaine to help him. The three friends get to working together and find themselves reminiscing about the old days and suffer the realisation that none of them were expecting to still be alive by this point. However the reunion doesn’t stay happy for very long, Begbie has escaped from prison and is out to tear Mark to pieces.
The brothel plot gives the film something to anchor everything together but in truth it plays second fiddle to the overarching theme of friendships turned sour, old habits dying hard and the regret over mistakes made in the past. Where the original film had a devil-may-care, nihilistic viewpoint of 20 something junkies just looking to make it day-to-day, this is a more sombre approach, everyone is in their 40s, most of them have kids but not one of them has a great relationship with their offspring, their reunion forces everyone to look back on where they went wrong 20 years ago and how that affected them in the time since they last saw each other. It’s a more poignant experience than the original but fitting for how the characters have progressed since last time.
Speaking of which it was nice to see everyone back again, some could’ve used more screentime, Diane was reduced to little more than a cameo appearance though she did have a good callback joke while Spud’s girlfriend Gail had only a single line of dialogue right at the end. The new characters found their place in the series, including Begbie’s son Francis Junior but it was Sick-Boy’s prostitute girlfriend Veronica who stood out the most. At first she felt like an exposition dump being the only new member to the group dynamic, however she quickly showed herself to be a caring, intelligence but also devious little mistress who kept herself one step ahead of everyone without anyone catching on.
Renton takes the lead role again, having spent the last 20 years in Amsterdam off heroin and living healthy – a nice explanation for why the skinny little junkie now looks like a movie-star – he’s tried to turn his life around at the expense of missing life back at home, most notably his mother’s death. His return home is marred by obvious violence and the threat of Begbie hangs over him like a knife but his options are limited which is why he chooses to stay, in a very addict like fashion he returns to the toxic life that he tried to get away from, only this time he’s older, more cautious and more hopeless. That’s the biggest change to Renton’s character, his mantra in the first film was Choose Life which is what he went for at the end of the film only now he’s gone through it and realised it’s just as dull and miserable as he thought, only nowadays everyone is tweeting about their dull, miserable lives. You get the sense that Renton can’t escape his so-called mates and McGregor is able to channel that into almost a mid-life crisis, showing Renton’s fears have shifted from dying young to dying old.
Spud proves just as much a lovable idiot as last time, he’s a little more tragic this time having failed as a husband and a father and now resigns himself to the fact that heroin has been the only friend that’s stuck with him. Despite that though Spud retains his general liking for everyone, as angry as he is about Mark abandoning them he can’t stay mad and often tries to play peacemaker in the group, to varying degrees of success. His biggest contribution to the film is he starts writing out his life stories with the events he and his friends went through, it gets a little meta towards the end but fans of the book will be happy to hear that a key scene involving Begbie’s father and the origin of Trainspotting as a title has been included.
Speaking of Begbie, if anything Carlyle has gotten even more terrifying, especially now that Begbie has nothing to lose, after his initial prison escape he tries to get back into the game with his son Francis Junior, only to realise that the opportunities open for him are more appealing than what he had. This at first feels like a distraction to keep Begbie out the main plot until he and Mark meet up – which kicks off a very intense final act – but it pays out in a strong way with the psychotic madman showing some surprising depth and humanity. Carlyle still nails the C-Word spouting, head-kicking psycho but it’s nice to see there’s more to Begbie than that.
Rounding out the cast is Sick-Boy, now going by Simon and using cocaine instead of heroin but still coming up with some get-rich-quick scheme. Sick-Boy comes across as a co-lead to Renton because it’s their relationship that makes up the main plot thread, being former best friends who now hate each other and having them both work together brings up a lot of old feelings, some good but mostly bad. The back and forth that Millar and McGregor have is just as good with both of them often in a verbal spar, most of the time it’s funny but there’s a few moments where it gets personal with Sick-Boy reminding Mark of his role in Tommy’s death and Mark bringing up the death of Baby Dawn over Sick-Boy’s neglect. Like the rest of the cast there’s an older quality to Sick-Boy, even if he hasn’t fully grown out of his prick-like manners, having Renton back in his life allows him that chance to see just how bad he let his life get away from him.
Of course the fifth returning musketeer is Danny Boyle, no longer the vibrant new-blood that he was in the 90s, now an Oscar Winning and genre defying icon. That does come across in his directional style here, it’s not as shocking as the original film, there are no dead babies, the worst toilet in Scotland is only a passing joke and aside from Sick-Boy’s coke use there’s actually very little in terms of drug use which would probably explain why there are not as many drugged-up visuals. Drugs still play a part but you see more Viagra than you do heroin, with the character being older you get the sense that the film has matured as well, moving past the need to show us that these are heroin users because we established that in the last film.
That’s not to say Boyle hasn’t lost his style, there’s plenty of moments throughout that remind you of how influential Boyle was 20 years ago and how he’s continued to be so throughout his career. From a hilarious segment where Renton and Sick-Boy talk over each other to Veronica and both their separate conversations appearing as text on screen, to a split-screen conversation between Renton and Begbie as they slowly come to realise who they’re talking to, it might not be as surreal but the visual imagery is just as inventive. There’s also some social commentary that the original film lacked, Spud laments the benefits office and how a junkie’s never had to worry about daylight savings before, Renton and Sick-Boy get involved with a Loyalist group and improvise a Catholic bashing song to save their skins and at one point they even get the government involved to give them money for a start-up business to renovate a dying part of Edinburgh. It’s not vital but the fact that the commentary was removed in the translation from the original book to film, having it return here is a nice addition.
On a final note I will admit the soundtrack is kind of lacking, there’s some old classics in there like Run-DMC’s It’s Like That, Queen’s Radio Ga-Ga and Frankie’s Relax, as well as remixes of old favourites but very few of the new songs actually hit, Shotgun Mouthwash kicks things off with a modern twist on the Lust for Life drums and Wolf Alice’s Silk from the trailers is a nice soft ending note but nothing feels as iconic as Perfect Day or Born Slippy. I don’t dislike the soundtrack but comparatively it’s a let-down.
T2: Trainspotting has had its Judgement Day and it comes out on top, it knows it could never top the original and doesn’t set out to, instead delivering a more matured story about those who should’ve died young now growing old. While some cast members got pushed to the sidelines the returning four managed to slip right back into their roles and make their return feel genuine while Boyle replaces shock value with a fun if sombre piece that feels like the best way for these character to continue their story.
4 out of 5 hairpieces