Film Review: T2 Trainspotting

Twenty years on, the lads from Leith get up to new scams in Danny Boyle’s ramshackle and occasionally poignant sequel.
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The last we saw Renton (Ewan McGregor) in Trainspotting, that verve-and-nerve 1990s midpoint between Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie, he was absconding with several thousand pounds that he and his junkie mates had scored in a heroin deal. The first we see of him in the sequel, two decades on, he’s still running. But unlike the first film’s now-iconic dashes through the streets of Edinburgh, now Renton, the onetime rail-thin hedonist and Iggy Pop enthusiast, is on a treadmill. In a gym. It all seems to have gone intensely wrong for him even before he has a good percussive pratfall to start this pell-mell sequel.

Things haven’t much changed in old Edinburgh when Renton comes back to town, save for the kilted lasses greeting people at the airport; when he asks one where she’s from, she says, “Slovenia.” Unlike their eagerly striving hometown, the lads aren’t exactly choosing life. Simon, aka Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), is still a scam artist with a shark-like manner—though that bleach-blond hair now comes out of a bottle in order to hide the grey. Now he’s running a failing pub (“the great wave of gentrification has yet to engulf us”) and using Bulgarian immigrant Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova) to seduce men on video for later blackmailing. Estranged from his wife and kid and out of work, the goonishly innocent Spud (Ewen Bremner) is scraping by on the goodness of strangers. Their full-tilt sociopath pal Begbie (Robert Carlyle) is fresh out of jail and looking both to expand his criminal resume and enact slow, painful revenge on Renton for leaving them all in the lurch.

Pulling loosely from Irvine Welsh’s post-Trainspotting work, Danny Boyle’s usual screenwriter John Hodge stitches together a thin skein of plot around Welsh’s basically episodic work. Almost nothing is said about Renton’s 20 years away besides a brief mention of a wife in Amsterdam. Once he falls back into Simon’s orbit, they start working together on Simon’s half-baked idea to turn his pub into a swank massage parlor, using Spud as contractor. Their escapades range from scamming the government out of a small business loan and stealing wallets at a Protestant society event; the pair have to do some fancy footwork in the latter, improvising a song about the 1690 Battle of the Boyne with the catchy and crowd-pleasing chorus: “There were no more Catholics left!” All the while, Begbie circles like an agent of chaos and Spud fights the siren call of heroin—which they all seem to have left behind a bit too easily—while exorcising his inner demons with short-story writing.

The filmmakers don’t pretend T2 doesn’t live in the shadow of the original. Fortunately, they play on that. The Edinburgh of the characters’ misspent youth works like a tractor beam on their sputtering midlives. Even though Simon, like Begbie, is secretly planning vengeance on the prodigal Renton, the old friends pal around in jovial style, reliving the years together that seemed sketchy and miserable at the time but now flare brightly in retrospect. Although Veronika is relegated to a fairly token role, like Kelly Macdonald’s Diane from the first film, she helps deliver an ironic counterpoint to all of their backwards-gazing and refusals to grow up. Though when she marvels about how “here, you all live in the past,” it’s all part of the film’s backdrop of inward-looking, post-Brexit anxiety and complacency.

T2 isn’t exactly a referendum on Scottish independence or the pains of middle age. It’s eager to entertain, teasing the audience with gags like hearing just the opening chords of “Lust for Life” before the needle gets yanked off the record. Boyle’s saturated colors and cockeyed angles play off Hodge’s skittering subplots and the cast’s racing energy as the whole enterprise barrels towards a great reckoning with the furious Begbie. But there’s more resonance in some of the quieter moments, like Renton’s lament about surviving to middle age only to face so much life yet to come (“They didn’t say what to do with that thirty years”), and Simon’s jab at Renton’s drain-circling nostalgia (“You’re a tourist in your own youth”).

At its worst, T2 is going through the motions and replaying old glories. At its best, the film points a critical gaze back at the audience and asks why they are so interested in watching that.

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