T2 Trainspotting | Director: Danny Boyle | Writer: John Hodge | Starring: Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller, Robert Carlyle, Anjela Nedyalkova | Running Time: 117 minutes | Year: 2017
With T2 Trainspotting, returning screenwriter John Hodge throws out the hash and heroin in favour of a brand new drug. Nostalgia is the substance we’re abusing these days and you’d better believe that this film has got it bad.
The plot picks up twenty years after Mark Renton’s departure at the end of Trainspotting. Renton (Ewan McGregor) is about to lose everything in a messy divorce settlement and so he returns to Edinburgh with plans to hook up with his old friends Simon “Sick Boy” Williamson (Jonny Lee Miller) and Daniel “Spud” Murphy (Ewen Bremner). A few scuffles start upon Renton’s sudden return, but the boys soon rekindle their dismal friendships and start about making a plan to go into business together. Little do they know that psychopath Francis Begbie (Robert Carlyle) is also back in town; fresh out of prison and most definitely out for blood.
Almost every story beat and memorable moment in the 1996 original is referenced, recreated, or otherwise strip-mined for nostalgic effect here and it’s the viewer’s own personal disposition towards this sort of exploitation that will ultimately determine the sequel’s value as a piece of entertainment.
New character arcs are teased, but they don’t really go anywhere and the film quickly falls into a familiar rhythm where old footage is either reimagined or replayed, and once memorable lines are regurgitated to underwhelming effect. It’s a shame because seeing the original cast members reprise their roles after twenty years is a genuine pleasure. Not much make-up was needed to accurately convey the ravages of time – Jonny Lee Miller’s receding bleach-blonde hairline is just priceless – and for all the water under the bridge, Renton and his gang are still a bunch of obsessive screw-ups, full of delectable flaws and amusing quirks.
However, the eye-opening depictions of drug abuse that so effectively defined the dark side of modern Scotland in the first film are almost nowhere to be seen in this sequel. Sick Boy’s new cocaine habit and the one-off use of heroin totally lack the impact and consequence that you’d expect from a film bearing this name and it’s uncomfortable to think that such redundant scenes are just another insipid nod for nostalgia’s sake.
And it’s nostalgia that’s so self-aware that it takes on a mind of its own. When the boys visit a familiar location from the first movie, Sick Boy remarks:
“Nostalgia, that’s why you’re here. You’re a tourist in your own youth.”
Even more loaded is Renton’s trailer-bait monologue that riffs on the previous film’s iconic narration:
“Choose life. Choose Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and hope that someone, somewhere cares. Choose looking up old flames, wishing you’d done it all differently, and choose watching history repeat itself…”
It’s difficult to know what’s more astonishing; the fact that Renton awkwardly says this aloud whilst on a date, or the fact that he actually gets the woman into bed after saying it.
The characters know full well that they’re retreading old ground. This self awareness could even have been a cool idea, but the melancholy atmosphere that it creates just doesn’t lend itself well to black comedy. Indeed, T2 Trainspotting is a relatively sombre outing and aside from a few amusing exchanges in the superb toilet stall scene, there really aren’t that many laughs to be had over its two hour running time.
Nothing meaningful gets accomplished and it’s frustrating to see so many potentially interesting story threads linger whilst the film is busy playing ‘remember when’. Sick Boy’s kinda-sorta girlfriend; a sex worker called Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova), is introduced as the series’ first major female character and yet she rarely does anything except listen to old stories and traipse around in prostitute outfits. Sick Boy’s dream of opening a sauna franchise is also disappointing because there’s no pay off, Spud’s dream of becoming a writer feels tacked on, and Francis Begbie’s dream of hurting people isn’t very inspired either.
The distant focus on Begbie is especially lacklustre considering he is supposed to be Trainspotting’s wildcard character. As an unhinged Scotsman with a short fuse and a big knife, Begbie’s expletive-fuelled bouts of heavy drinking and shocking violence once made for some infamous and shamefully entertaining scenes. Carlyle has got the look and he’s still enthusiastic in the role, but his portrayal in T2 Trainspotting isn’t quite the same as he flips between colourful language and over-the-top chest-beating in order to convey Begbie’s many frustrations.
Begbie’s potential is further defused by his vendetta against Renton; a plot point that ensures the two characters are kept separate for the majority of the movie. The abusive relationship between Begbie and Renton made for some unsettling drama once upon time, but here Begbie is left to his own devices and his scenes spent reuniting with his family and combatting his new-found problem with impotence just kind of fall flat. No pun intended.
All things considered, T2 Trainspotting is not a terrible sequel. It’s competently acted and reasonably entertaining for the most part, but its ponderous approach doesn’t create opportunities for anything particularly special or subversive, which is strange for a film concerning self-destructive people and their equally destructive desires.
Some viewers may get a few speedy kicks here for old times’ sake, but for everyone else the nostalgia trip will be fleeting; a cheap thrill followed by one hell of a comedown.