Say whatever you want about the reasoning, but director Danny Boyle has finally determined it was time to make his sequel to Trainspotting. While Shallow Grave was the debut for Boyle, Ewan McGregor and writer John Hodge, Trainspotting was their breakout hit from back in 1996. Now, over 20 years later, while not a direct adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s Porno, the sequel novel to his Trainspotting, we have what amounts to a mostly enjoyable check-in with the same characters. While T2 Trainspotting may not be willing enough to stick to capturing a sense of the moment like the first film, it does work best when it allows for perspective to settle in on this older crew of former junkies and criminals.
With two decades having passed since abandoning his friends, McGregor’s Mark “Rent Boy” Renton finally returns to Edinburgh in search of something. He likely wants to make up for lost time, given a recent event that opens the film, but in the meantime, let’s see what everyone else is up to. Ewen Bremner’s Daniel “Spud” Murphy is still a heroin junkie currently dealing with a separation from his son’s mother (Shirley Henderson). Jonny Lee Miller’s Simon “Sick Boy” Williamson is still working as a scam artist, using a blackmail scheme with his girlfriend Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova). Finally, Robert Carlyle’s psychotic Francis “Franco” Begbie is going through dramatic measures to get out of jail, after being denied parole.
One thing that remains true with this film is the exploration of urban poverty and the desperate measures a group of addicts go to in an effort to live their lives the way they want. Of course, the original film was able to feel novel in both the energy coming out of Boyle’s direction and the fresh faces featured in a film capitalizing on the attitude of the times. T2 allows McGregor to deliver a big monologue concerning the culture of today, but it never feels like Boyle and Hodge had much of a desire to really match this film with the current day, beyond some obvious technological upgrades involving smart phones.
If anything, T2 is stuck in time, which must be part of the point. Boyle has frequently talked in the past about how he wanted to wait for his actors to get visibly older before going through with a sequel. Now that he’s arrived at this point, this feels like more of an extended epilogue than anything else. Sure, it’s an epilogue that’s about 20 minutes longer than the original film, but the way this film lets us basically just hang around with older versions of these characters with little concern for plotting makes for an interesting experience.
Really, I’m hitting at why this movie does a lot of things well enough, despite not having much of a point, which is something of a shame. Boyle has been a solid journeyman director, delivering on horror, sci-fi, mystery, biopic, action and even a family film. He doesn’t feel out of his depth here, but beyond letting loose with his high-energy shooting style and continued collaboration with cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, the film is only able to explore so much.
Fortunately, all the hallmarks of a fun Boyle film are here. A new, kinetic soundtrack is in full force and a streak of dark comedy is matched with a mix of drama and absurdism quite effectively. There is also the nostalgia factor. While padding the film with various clips and references to the first film serve as fan service more than anything, when we get to see these characters have fun, it shows. A true highlight, for example, is a scene set in a pub, where Renton and Sick Boy perform a made-up song, while robbing all the patrons.
The cast is great, adding some new shades to their performances that really help to reflect how time has passed. McGregor may have been the key character back in the first film, but T2 really functions more as an ensemble and that does a service to how things play out. Carlyle’s Begbie, for example, could have been a disastrous character to see for too long, yet this film does a fine job of adding nuance to who this very angry man is. Conversely, Bremner’s Spud is even more sympathetic this time around, with his scenes feeling the most distant from a fantastical take on what drugs can do to someone.
Ultimately though, not that it was expected, but T2 didn’t come off as some sort of transcendent experience in the same way other follow-ups that took years to come have. I’m speaking less to something huge like The Force Awakens or Jurassic World and more along the lines of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset or even Kevin Smith’s Clerks II. Those were films that came around a decade after their predecessor and expressed how the filmmakers and actors had truly grown and what new thoughts on life they had to share. T2 is not short on observations, but it ultimately feels like we are taking a tour through these characters current lives, rather than fully investing in the cost of “choosing life.” That said, as a character study, this film at least knows how to have fun.