Review: T2 Trainspotting
The prospect of director Danny Boyle making a sequel to his culturally defining 1990s opus Trainspotting, over 20 years later with the same cast, seems like an unnecessary and pointless exercise in cashing in on nostalgia. True, there has been quite a resurgence in belated returns in major Hollywood filmmaking in recent years (Independence Day: Resurgence, Tron Legacy, Jurassic World, Zoolander 2), but these films usually try to provide a bigger version of their predecessor in terms of budget and story, and have been raked over the coals by critics for doing so.
T2 Trainspotting is the rare kind of sequel that, while completely driven by the very essence of nostalgia, chooses to instead tackle the youthful exuberance of its forerunner, almost like an interrogation. The consequences of the past are the through line of the film, coupled by the dire feeling of a dim future. There's not as much energy here as in Trainspotting and very little heroin use, but it's a highly heartfelt return, and one where the idea of being an addict still permeates through its veins.
Renton (Ewan McGregor), now clean and living in Amsterdam, returns home to Edinburgh after 20 years, having abandoned his mates Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), Spud (Ewen Bremner), and the oafish Begbie (Robert Carlyle) following a drug deal that netted them £16,000. Renton's had a near-death experience and intends to settle past scores, soon finding that they're mostly just the same, unable to fit into the customs of society no better than when they were in their 20s. Sick Boy makes a living running his aunt's pub while dealing in blackmail schemes with his girlfriend/business partner Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova), Spud is still addicted to smack and facing rock bottom, and Begbie, fresh out of escaping from prison, has taken to robbing homes and wants to bring his son along for the ride.
Boyle joked previously that the reason for waiting so long to make the sequel was because of the actors natural vanity. Even with that in mind, a major component of T2 Trainspotting is about showing age, and we see that on display from the amount of wrinkles and receding hair lines in each of its central characters, to the more reflective nature of reaching the midpoint of life and realizing how screwed up it's become. It's for that reason of crisis that the film remains so spellbinding, and why it works so much better than other sequels that merely serve to retread things. Drug addiction was the key focus of Trainspotting, but here its the very nature of addiction itself; how we all have things in our lives we compulsively partake in to fill the void, thinking its good even when we know deep down it's really bad.
In that sense, this film serves to take the elements of the original and look back at them with a sense of fondness, and also, despair. It should be noted that there's a lot of connective tissue between the two, and chances are if you haven't seen Trainspotting in a while, you're going to miss a lot of the nods and in-jokes made here, and if you're never seen it, you'll be hopelessly lost. For that reason, T2 Trainspotting doesn't fully work on its own terms, as not having access to the history of its characters (even when the film is littered with flashbacks) is a major detriment.
Seeing these characters 20 years on is a delight in itself, and the cast does a tremendous job rekindling and updating their personas for a modern sensibility. Even though he was never the most compelling protagonist from the start, McGregor's Renton is handled with grace and contemplation - the junkie who managed to get out but manages to be pulled back into a life of crime and squalor. Even though his actions caused much damage in the social fabric of his friends lives, you can't help but feel some kind of remorse for Renton, especially given his life since then isn't all that great. Bremner's take on Spud give the film its true heart, being the one character with a fully formed arc. As pained and delusional he can be, watching his redemption carry through across the story is as entertaining as it is moving. As Sick Boy (mainly referred through the film as 'Simon'), Miller displays the sense of intensity that has defined himself as an actor since breaking out in the 1990s. It's a joy to see him on screen with McGregor as the two have impeccable chemistry, even when considering the ulterior motives that guide their scenes together. And in a change of pace, Carlyle's Begbie is in full-on antagonist mode, though we get to see how his violent, painful past has come back to haunt him, in the form of his family who have tried to move on without him. These characters are no longer caricatures, all given ample space for reflection and development and dimension.
What really adds to the vibe and feeling of T2 Trainspotting is the visual work and editing, that somehow is in the spirit of Trainspotting but with the flair Boyle and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (Boyle’s go-to-guy since 28 Days Later) have finessed over the years. These very unorthodox, stylistic choices elevate the tone and help to give the story a major kick when needed. The soundtrack is also fantastic, featuring a mix of 80s and 90s-era hits against a collection of modern ones, and don't worry, some familiar tracks do come back in interesting ways.
It's hard to believe that a sequel made over 20 years later can manage to not only be on the same level as its predecessor, but actually intensify its sensibilities, but Boyle pulls it off with T2 Trainspotting. Like it's tongue-in-cheek metatextual title reference to James Cameron's Terminator 2: Judgment Day, it expands upon the original while also being very much its own thing, not trying to outdo what's already transpired but instead, welcoming it. Fans are going to be very happy with what the whole team has done here, sequels don't get much better than this.