Unspecified possibilities are the stuff of optimism. At the end of Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, when Renton strolls off into the sunset with a bag of cash, we don’t know what will happen next for him, but we know he’s decided to choose life. He’s going to go and find fulfilment, as any young man should be able. In T2 Trainspotting it turns out that he went and found the same kind of dull, meaningless nine-to-five that he and his friends were taking heroin to avoid, and he’s back in Edinburgh, supposedly for a visit, but really because he’s completely failed to find a place for himself in the world, and he has no clue what to do next. So much for optimism.
Like The Who, Led Zeppelin, (bizarrely) The Sex Pistols, or most appositely The Stooges, reuniting for a profitable tour years after their moments of marginal relevance, classic movies often spawn unnecessary sequels a few decades down the line. The Colour of Money won Paul Newman his first Oscar twenty-five years after the release of The Hustler, but despite being a fine movie in its own right, it didn’t attain (or deserve) the classic status of the earlier film. I imagine Boyle’s T2 Trainspotting will find a similar legacy in relation to its more illustrious predecessor.
It is an extremely good movie, one which stands as a well-told story in its own right, without trading heavily on nostalgia for the original. However, Trainspotting is one of the landmarks of twentieth-century British film-making, a black swan which elbowed its way into the movie world’s affections with brash vulgarity and punk energy, recalibrating cinema in the process. Its sequel is a film like many other films. There’s not much transgressive power in breaking taboos twenty-two years after the first time you pulverised them, and T2 Trainspotting is consequently neither as exciting for the viewer, nor as creatively ambitious for its director.
It retains many of the earlier film’s formal devices, particularly in terms of its dynamic, staccato editing, frequently punctuated with freeze-frames—the kind of hip, edgy technique that was rarely seen in British cinema before Boyle deployed it for the first time. It also has a good few moments that make it as unsuitable for dinnertime viewing as the first flick—which is precisely when we did watch it, but we somehow coped with Begbie ripping out his drip to escape from a secure hospital room, and Spud puking into the clear plastic bag he was using to self-asphyxiate. The story is the same kind of story as well—it has elements of the heist movie, but the criminal endeavour is shambolic and accidental. Ultimately, although they both feature crime, neither are crime pictures: they’re character driven dramas set in a marginal but recognisable corner of society.
Like the earlier film, this one is a lot of fun, mischievously plotted and luridly satirical. Its characters are well reprised by a cast who have lost none of their charisma or conviction, and they are drawn as very plausible older versions of their younger selves. Of course this is a nostalgia trip, particularly for viewers of the original who are in the same age group as the protagonists (yep, that’s me), but Boyle never counts on that to let him off any of the work of making a good movie. For some reason many of Trainspotting’s location shots are in recognisable parts of Glasgow city centre, but this time he opted to film in Edinburgh, where the film is set, albeit edited in a way that’s very confusing for anyone who’s familiar with the real city’s geography. So in summary, this film lacks the subversive kick of its predecessor, but it is far from a remake, or a lazy regurgitation of old themes. T2 Trainspotting is an exciting, plausible, entertaining, and often hilarious take on growing up (or failing to), and it’s a finely-honed example of the film-maker’s craft.