The title to the 1996 Trainspotting sequel may sound somewhat unimaginative, even clumsy – no colons, no dashes – but there’s a reason. During production, the working title began as simply Trainspotting 2, but director Danny Boyle wanted something more. He gathered the cast and asked them what they thought their characters would call the sequel. Given the ages of Renton, Spud, Simon, and Begbie, their penchant for nostalgia, plus their use of pop culture references, the cast agreed on T2. The Irvine Welsh book upon which the film is partly based, Porno, was never an option.
It’s twenty years later. Those working-class, aimless, drug-addled, beer swigging, often criminal, early twenty-somethings are now middle-aged and looking older. In the way that Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) ran from the police during the opening of Trainspotting, the new T2 has him running in a gym, his feet pounding the treadmill to the pulsating beat of the film’s opening rock soundtrack. Each of the four principle characters remembered from ‘96 have their stories, and the film brings us quickly up to date.
After running off with practically all the stolen money from a drug deal all those years ago, Renton has lived for the past twenty years with a wife in Amsterdam, but the relationship has soured. He returns to Edinburgh, back to his parents home – his mother has died – and back to his old bedroom, left untouched, still housing his David Bowie albums, his stereo turntable, his football magazines of his favorite player, Manchester United’s George Best, a secret stash still hidden away, and the childhood wallpaper of trains and steam engines.
Spud (Ewen Bremner) continues to struggle with a heroin addiction. Dealing with the failure of his life, including his comical battle with daylight savings time that made him continuously an hour late for every important meeting he was ever supposed to attend, including work, he’s now preparing for suicide.
Simon (Johnny Lee Miller) is landlord to a rundown pub, but subsidizes his income by growing weed in the pub’s basement and blackmailing seemingly respectable men with incriminating sex videos, a scheme he’s concocted with the help of his Bulgarian girlfriend, Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova). Meeting up with Renton after twenty years is not a welcomed reunion. “I’m gonna make him sorry he ever came back,” Simon declares.
And then there’s the psychotic Begbie (Robert Carlyle) who’s twenty-five year prison sentence still has five years to go, and parole was once again denied due to that violent temper that appears to have grown even more violent with each passing year. He’s a genuinely frightening figure. Having no intention of staying confined any further, he arranges a painful accident, is taken to hospital, escapes, and returns home to his wife and his now grown son, Frank (Scot Greenan). Begbie wants his son to follow dad’s footsteps into crime. Frank wants to get his diploma in hotel management.
As directed by Danny Boyle with his signature, adrenaline-fueled edits, cuts and image flashes, the sequel looks even more like a series of cinematic nervous tics than the original, yet it captures that feel of lives rushing by, and the film doesn’t disappoint. As with thoughts flashing through a mind, those four characters live in a past where their youth, their relationships, their whole history haunts them, constantly reminding them of a life wasted with little to show for it, and not much on the horizon. With self-referential clips from the original, the four constantly reflect on what they were and what they did.
When Renton and Simon talk of their early, youthful days to Veronika, their admiration of the greatest football player ever, George Best, and their love of John Barry’s music from the Bond movies, their excitement grows faster than they can speak. At one moment, and perhaps the film’s most touching scene, Spud, now balding and surprisingly a little wiser about himself, stands in the middle of an Edinburgh street and watches, motionless, as his former self with his friends race by. Engaged by Spud’s stories of the past, Veronika encourages the always struggling addict to write down his reminisces, which he does. Even the rage-filled Begbie later reflects back when reading one of Spud’s pages.
A couple of issues. With the exception of the new character, Veronika, the females of Trainspotting’s past are only faintly acknowledged. Kelly Macdonald’s Diane has only one scene – she’s now a lawyer who may or may not defend Simon in a blackmailing case – and Shirley Henderson’s Gail, Spud’s wife, has just the one line. After she reads Spud’s essays, she looks up and tells him she has a title. Plus, the film never gives an altogether satisfactory reason for Renton’s return. His home has been The Netherlands for twenty years. His may be separated, but his home, his work, his life, has been in Amsterdam. With the wife taking the house, there may be little for him currently in Holland, but there’s even less in Scotland, and returning back will only open severe wounds with potentially dire consequences. Perhaps the coronary he experiences while running on that treadmill during the opening scene is better served by Britain’s National Health than Holland’s, but it’s never mentioned.
As expected, the film, the Edinburgh locales, the thick, uncompromising Scottish accents – unlike Ken Loach’s The Angels’ Share, no subtitles to help American audiences – and the portrayals of those characters all wreak of authenticity. Why you would like them or want to be in their company is hard to say. At middle-age, they remain criminal, drug-addled and totally irresponsible, but John Hodge’s script and his characterization of them, backed by the lived-in, believability of McGregor, Bremner, Miller and Carlyle’s performances, pulls you in and makes you want to know what their next step is going to be. In particular, Bremner’s genial Spud develops into the most likable. Your sympathies can’t help but fall to him as he develops into the most personally honest, self-aware character out of the four.
T2 is about aging, and not always gracefully. But there’s more to it than that. Nostalgia can pierce the heart. Depending on your own habit of self-reflection, the life you’ve lived, the relationships you’ve had, the things you’ve done that you might regret, T2 Trainspotting will ultimately become something personal, relatable to all, but for individual reasons. It’s also one heck of ride.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 118 Minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)