It’s been twenty years since Ewan McGregor’s Mark Renton strolled across Waterloo Bridge, £16,000 stolen from his best friends slung over his shoulder, explaining that he was going to “choose life.” Now, he’s back and it’s time to see if he lived up to his words in the awkwardly named T2 Trainspotting.
Danny Boyle’s 1996 Trainspotting was one of those rare films that perfectly encapsulated its time and place. It arrived just as John Major’s Conservative government was gasping its last fart and Tony Blair was promising us that “things could only get better,” as Britpop exploded into a frantic burst of coke-fuelled creativity and people started excitedly blathering on about ‘cool Britannia.’
Renton returns to a very different Scotland, one reverberating from its failed bid for independence from the UK, paranoid about the impact of Brexit and gradually crumbling under economic austerity. The country isn’t in a good state – and neither are his erstwhile friends.
Sickboy (Jonny Lee Miller) is now an amateur blackmailer and would-be pimp, Begbie (Robert Carlyle) has just been denied parole on his 25 prison sentence and Spud (Ewen Bremner) is… well, he’s pretty much where we left him, a Gollumishly pathetic smackhead. Renton’s unexpected return, coinciding with a masochistically creative prison break from Begbie, brings the gang uneasily back together.
It makes for a tale of reconciliation, revenge and betrayal – all given an extratextual frisson by McGregor and Boyle’s acrimonious falling out over McGregor being unceremoniously booted from The Beach in favour of Leonardo DiCaprio.What it doesn’t make for is a particularly propulsive narrative. The episodically plotted original at least had the excuse that junkies tend not to have classical heroic arcs, but with the characters (mostly) cleaned up and middle-aged, Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge struggle to find them something to do other than hang out and get pissed.
Begbie suffers from this the least – transitioning into a Viagra-fuelled Scottish Terminator with ease, but a central scheme to convert a pub into a brothel unceremoniously peters out and Spud’s decision to become an author (essentially becoming Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh) is a meta moment too far.
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What’s left is a sequel that struggles to justify its existence. A bitter Sickboy sums it up best when he says “nostalgia, that’s why you’re here. You’re a tourist in your own youth.” Boyle constantly flashes back to the original, cross-cutting its then youthful cast with their middle-aged selves and never missing an opportunity to reference iconic scenes. At its best it works – a sly glance at a disgusting toilet is a nice wink. At its worst, though, it feels gratuitous, extremely so when Kelly MacDonald is shoehorned in for five minutes that really should have been consigned to a “deleted scenes” bonus feature.
Worse, it quickly becomes apparent that the film doesn’t have anything to say. A major plot strand involving Renton and Sickboy running a scam to secure EU funding feels out of date in post-Brexit Britain – bizarrely so when it makes no comment about it whatsoever. It also has absolutely nothing to say about Scottish independence, a disappointing development considering that the original contributed one of the great contemporary monologues about Scotland (“some hate the English. I don’t. They’re just wankers. We, on the other hand, are colonised by wankers” etc. etc.). Worst of all is a stilted reprise of the iconic “Choose Life” monologue that sounds like some old duffer on the bus rambling on about dumb kids and their mobile phones.
It’s not that T2 Trainspotting is a particularly bad film. McGregor, Carlyle, Miller and Bremner could make reading a shopping list entertaining, with Bremner a particular highlight and newcomer Anjela Nedyallkova acquitting herself very well in an underwritten role as a Bulgarian sex worker. You also can’t fault Boyle for a lack of directorial effort – he throws everything including the kitchen sink into making the film visually and sonically energetic.
But T2 Trainspotting goes to such lengths to remind you of its far superior predecessor that I found myself wishing I was watching that for the umpteenth time. There’s nothing inherently wrong with wallowing eyeball deep in cinematic nostalgia, but you have to do something with that nostalgia.
Danny Boyle's T2 Trainspotting is a diverting nostalgia exercise, to be sure, but it never really justifies its own existence.