It is safe to say that Trainspotting in no way warrants a sequel, and seeing it for the umpteenth time reminds you of its insularity. Though undoubtedly one of the seminal British films of the 90s, like the signature raucous timbre of Iggy’s ‘Lust for Life’, Trainspotting crashed thunderously into pop culture with its electrifying cocktail of dirty cinematic spectacle, pithy, sordid humour and brazen cynicism on the subject of modernity. The last time we saw Mark Renton, he was ready to “choose life”, and the commas appear inverted still, 20 years later.
It is thus hard to escape the insurmountable pressure on such a belated sequel as T2, which will inevitably have to define itself as something other than a cash-in or more pressingly, a nostalgia trip that doesn’t build on the original. I must admit a creeping dread that the teaser trailer induced of a long-awaited sequel that simply spins out the well-worn cultural artifact ‘Choose Life…’ to an irritatingly modern beat. As with all ‘Reunion’ scenarios, the threat to the legacy of 1996’s Trainspotting couldn’t be greater. Even in all its pitch-black bravura, its vicious verve still fronted for a loudly beating heart that is vulnerable enough to the kind of toxic sentimentality that plagues the phenomenon of belated reunion specials.
T2: Trainspotting, thankfully but not without clear effort, manages to walk the strained tightrope between embracing the rich, punky iconography of its predecessor while trying to sculpt a new trajectory for its beloved characters. Free from the shackles of (heroin) addiction, but evidently not the past, Mark Renton returns home to find his so-called mates Spud and Sick Boy have lived out their destiny, trapped in old cycles of addiction and desperation. It is no mean feat that the treasured legacy of Trainspotting is still intact, despite cynical detractors of an ‘unnecessary’ sequel. Trainspotting 2 is less frantic, more downbeat and lacking the unforgettable soundtrack of its predecessor, but Boyle never fails to show how far he’s developed as seminal British director since the 1990s – expertly dialing up the tension and moments of violent catharsis that have come to define his style.
Having immersed himself in the Scottish capital during production, Danny Boyle gives Edinburgh a much greater presence than in Trainspotting. The caustic, existential wit of junkie underground slips all too comfortably into the slicker but still dreary scene of 21st century metropolitan Scotland, soaked in fluorescent excess, depravity, and indifference. Even as grown men, for the Fab Fuckups Renton, Simon, Spud and Begbie, society remains an enemy to be outmanoeuvred by degenerate schemes and blackly comic opportunism.
Whereas Trainspotting stuck closely to Renton’s personal route of self-destruction, its successor (at a slightly baggier 117-minute runtime) gives more breathing space to Simon, Spud and Begbie, resurrected charmingly (and chillingly) by Jonny Lee Miller, Ewen Bremner and Robert Carlyle. The film’s ultimate strength is the mature and gracious handling of the dangerously clichéd ‘where are they all now’ tradition, channeling the poignancy and uncompromising portrait of these destructive personalities into middle-age. Renton’s iconic and ironic ‘Choose Life’ manifesto finds room among the hollow excess of modern life 20 years later, and though naturally lacking in quite the same vicious gusto of its forebear, reminds us of its pertinence, asserting its relevance but not desperately so (although the namechecking of modern trends like vajazzling and snapchat are distractions that fall flat). Veronika, love interest of Simon and Renton, while acting as a source of exposition for unfamiliar audiences, is jarringly not as well-drawn as the main characters; while she is by no means peripheral to the main storyline, she fails to leave her mark amidst the relentless, shit-chatting middle-aged Scottish “losers” we have come to love so dearly.
While the broader narrative focus from Renton’s story onto the whole gang certainly makes you long for the caustic, cool wit that made Trainspotting such an intoxicating classic, it is another sign that T2 may revel in its forebear’s legacy, but is determined to see its characters through the lens of modern masculinity, keeping the boys (now men) as strange yet relatable as they were drawn in Trainspotting.
T2’s conclusion lacks the twisted uplift of the original, as well as the surreal cinematic pleasure and its radical, rollicking spirit – a definable absence. Yet perhaps this is what makes it an enjoyable, successful follow-up; transposing the cynical charm and beautiful ugliness of Trainspotting into the 21st century, in all its hopeless disconnect and excessive apathy, trying once more to find something human. It may not build so successfully on the iconic foundations of Trainspotting, but T2 proves it does not need to. Danny Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge have produced a sequel that is successful in this very self-consciousness – the ethereal techno echo of ‘Born Slippy’ broods in the undertones of the film’s moments of melancholy nostalgia but never rears its pounding head; we should have never expected a simple rerun of Trainspotting’s dizzying, narcotic cinematic haze – youth is not something you can return to.
While the slippy finale of Trainspotting filled us with exhilaration purely because of the strange hopefulness glinting in Mark Renton’s teeth as he stared fearlessly into the future, T2 turns the other way – opting finally to embrace the past. Around half-way through the film, Simon chides to Mark “You’re a tourist in your own youth”, waxing nostalgic about the tragic events from his days as a junkie. Boyle & co may hold back and allow T2 to become more of a meditation on getting older, but it this very self-consciousness that saves T2 from becoming a wasted opportunity. Maybe this kind of nostalgia is exactly what we need – not the empty, toxic nostalgia for a time that never existed (no politics here), but a chance for reflection, and hopefully, maturation. T2: Trainspotting was never by any means necessary, but it is more than welcome.