In times of transition it’s often necessary to return to our watershed moments. Those moments that originally set us on a course to the people we became. In this way, time is cyclical, often repeating itself. Such is the case with Renton (Ewan McGregor). When we saw him last in 1996 he ended up choosing life over heroin and over his friends. It’s over twenty years later now and he finds himself on his way out of a job and out of a marriage. Now he will tell you that he chose life and in doing so he chose disappointment. The most frustrating thing for Renton is that he can think of absolutely nothing else to do with the rest of his life other than revisit his past, even knowing what could happen. This is the journey in T2 Trainspotting.
The original Trainspotting was a watershed moment not just for all those filmmakers involved but for cinema as well. It was distributed by the legendary Miramax marketing machine of the 90s so it stirred up lots of polarizing conversations and the cool poster was plastered in every dorm across the USA. Even the name was cool, undeterred by the fact that nobody knew what it meant. It’s actually a euphemism for living the life of a drug addict and this isn’t because the characters frequented train stations. Much like the very peculiar and now obsolete hobby of spotting train numbers and logging them to share with other hobbyists, the only people that understand it are those that take part. This is also true with lovers of the original film. The conversations are authentic and cool, not to mention the awesome visuals and bold soundtrack. The film is raw but the characters that lived in those 94 minutes transcended in many ways. This is why Boyle and company even considered a sequel. You have a filmmaker in Boyle that cannot be defined by any genre or style. He does not seem interested in doing something he has already done before. Reviewing his filmography you will see that he is too creative and too elusive to be categorized. This is his first attempt at a sequel.
T2 suffers from an extraneous title and from common sequel pitfalls. It is far too sentimental and even reverent to the original source material with too much fan service sprinkled throughout. Despite this, there is real chemistry in the performances and the story is paced with Boyle’s visual gusto. Writer John Hodge and Boyle found a way to create a mirror image of the original, while at the same time infusing the main thread with new themes altogether. T2 walks the line of being an awful Hollywood sequel but more times than not, saves itself. Sometimes with a well-placed toilet scene or two.
The Edinburgh that Renton returns to is vastly different from the one he left. This is his first time visiting since his mother has passed away. She left the room just as he, and the audience for that matter, remember it. After paying respects, he decides it’s time to show his face to the squad he left behind. He arrives to meet Spud (Ewen Bremner) in the middle of killing himself, just in time to fill a long vacant spot for his old friends. Spud is saved and Renton begins coaching him on ways to become clean physically and mentally.
Simon, or Sick Boy as he was known twenty years ago (Jonny Lee Miller), is still up to his schemes. Currently, he has made a business for himself blackmailing powerful people with his partner in crime, the beautiful, Veronica (Anjela Nedyakova). When Renton shows up at Simon’s dilapidated pub, they get into a brawl pretty quickly. He rants to Veronica about how he is going to hurt Renton by feigning real friendship. This older Simon is different from the one we remember. There are no more exhaustive speeches about Sean Connery and Bond girls. They have been replaced with aggressive outbursts fueled by a cocaine habit. It becomes apparent that he has committed emotional suicide long ago. In this way he is Spud’s foil. Simon is crippled by feeling so little while Spud is crippled by feeling so much. Spud will rely on the past to save him and along the way Simon just does not see the point of it all. “It’s just nostalgia! You’re a tourist in your own youth.” he yells at Renton.
Franco, also known as Begbie (Robert Carlyle), is the embodiment of the unforgiving past. It just so happens that he orchestrates his escape from prison at about the same time that Renton returns. He has not changed much aside from getting angrier and he thrusts himself on a world that has moved on without him. He is a monster of insecure masculinity. In fact, the unifying theme among all the leads is fading masculinity and therefore identity. Simon has not stopped bleaching his receding hair for twenty years and is instantly worried that Renton is going to steal Veronica away from him. He is not incorrect in his uneasiness as Renton does indeed try to do just that. Their friendship was always rooted in their macho rivalry. Look at the scene where Simon and Renton are regaling Veronica with triumphant football stories of the past. She is completely not interested while the two old boys remember how much they used to love being worked up in this way and being with each other.
No woman imposes a significant presence throughout the film besides the lost Veronica. The relationship between her and Simon is very dubious. Aside from their business arrangement, why does she stay with him? Her motivations aren’t worked out beyond that she is bored and she does not want to go back home with nothing. For some reason she feels trapped here but she doesn’t appear to be entangled with anybody emotionally. There is merely a passing curiosity with their lifestyle and history. Her presence alone is necessary to instigate crucial plot moments, particularly the finale, and once she has done that, she is gone. It was refreshing to see Diane (Kate MacDonald) again. She is the life that Renton could have had or in other words, is completely inaccessible. She has an authoritative presence with no nostalgia for those days. She does not share the feeling of being left behind the way the other leads do. It isn’t without irony that she tells Renton “She is too young for you” regarding Veronica.
Spud is the heart of this film because it is his purpose to preserve the memory of twenty years ago with as much authenticity as possible. The case can be made that Spud is Boyle and Hodges’ avatar in the film, giving it shape and keeping it grounded. He has also lost the most. Heroin has warped him for so many years that he has lost his family, the one thing that could have saved him. Every look and action he makes is a haunted one. When Renton takes him under his wing, he advises Spud to throw all that craving and desire into anything else. After a very funny stint that had Spud turning into the British Jake LaMotta, he literally finds himself standing in the original film watching his younger self and a young Renton running through the Edinburgh streets after shoplifting. With a push from Veronica, he starts writing everything as he remembers it. Spud will discover the power of his voice and it will keep him going. Even the unabashed rage of Begbie is curbed, allowing him to reach an epiphany about himself.
T2 Trainspotting does so much reminiscing and flashing back to the original and yet it almost works as a standalone film. Boyle’s approach makes it possible as he fills the movie with modern technology and current events. Bringing everything into present day Edinburgh brings a freshness to the old material. The plot is forced and some of the visuals hit you over the head with how on the nose they are but I for one never got the impression that any of the filmmakers were not having a good time making this in service to the original fans.
T2 Trainspotting is in theaters now.