Stars: Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller, Robert Carlyle, Anjela Nedyalkova, Kelly Macdonald | Written by John Hodge | Directed by Danny Boyle
20 years on, the idea of a sequel to a film that was so entrenched in a time and place in modern British history might seem like folly. And while it’s not as bad as it could have been, T2 Trainspotting (as it’s clunkily named) struggles to find a personality or a cultural relevance of its own. It tries hard – too hard – and ends up being a cover version as dodgy as the remixes that dominate its soundtrack.
First we find a middle-aged Renton (Ewan McGregor), running on a treadmill. Still running. Always running but getting nowhere. He’s living in Amsterdam, but he’s drawn back to Edinburgh. There, Spud (Ewen Bremner) has barely moved on. The clocks changed for British summertime and he got confused and his life unravelled and he’s back on the skag. He’s a bit slower than the machine gun we remember, and a lot sadder.
Spud, with his less machinating mind, is the forgiving type. But Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) is still full of anger about Rent’s betrayal: that stolen £4k. The one-time best mates greet with a funny slapstick fistfight that recalls Tom Hardy’s wrestle with himself in Legend. It seems at first like Sick Boy has failed at life and Renton has succeeded. But then, in that very male way, the levelling begins: it turns out not everything is right in Renton’s new life, and not everything is wrong in Sick Boy’s.
Their plan to build a brothel gathers pace. They ironically try to trigger the gentrification of Leith, harnessing the illusion of progress. But they never banked on Francis Begbie (Robert Carlyle) being unleashed from prison. He returns to his family with all the subtlety of a wrecking ball. And that’s before he learns that Renton is back in town. Can Sick Boy and Renton put aside their differences and unite against the unstoppable force of “Franco”?
Gladly, the ever-likable Spud has been given greater depth of character this time around. Suicidally depressed, he believes his family would be better off without him. Spud’s overarching role is as a kind of active narrator. He’s writing down his stories, just as he speaks them (a nod to Irvine Welsh), which means there’s a sweet if somewhat clichéd plot thread which can only come to a point where he is asked, “How will the story end?”
It’s never fully explained why Renton returns, although it is apparent that on some level he is looking to revitalise his lust for life through the nostalgia he feels for his thrillingly toxic childhood friendships. It’s just about plausible, indeed pleasurable, to watch a rejuvenated Renton crack a smile as he surfs the roof of a car. But in trying so hard the recapture the spirit and youthful energy of the original film, director Danny Boyle gives us a sequel which sometimes feels geriatric beyond its years.
Sick Boy, now the proprietor of the Port Sunshine bar – a pub at the end of the world – isn’t the man we remember. Gone is the urbane wit and much of the smarm, replaced by rage and bitterness. Understandable, perhaps, but not much fun to watch. He keeps a eurotrash girlfriend, Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova), who’s a big-hearted beauty used for blackmail porn. An angel and a pro. Renton and Sick Boy, both infatuated in their own way, plead their innocence to her like she’s a divine judge. Only she can see the love between the two men. The other female speaking part is Diane – yes, Kelly Macdonald is shoehorned into a cameo.
Sick Boy and Renton’s plot to build the brothel is a giant MacGuffin: a plotline that never develops; sticky residue, perhaps, from Welsh’s follow-up novel, Porno. The real story is about revenge; about not letting go. The conceit of the psychopathic associate emerging from prison carrying years of volcanic rage is straight out of This Is England. But Begbie doesn’t have the depth of Stephen Graham’s Combo. He’s more of a pantomime baddie.
T2 is dogged by relentless callbacks. Remember the Choose Life speech? Of course. Well here, Renton explains its origin, and then barrels into an overlong, modernised version, decrying Facebook, iPhones, Twitter et al. It’s an excruciating, post-dubbed rant with a Born Slippy ambient remix whining in the background. In another scene we get Renton grinning madly through a windscreen – fine, except we’ve already had the shot from the first film replayed via Spud’s memories. There’s more recycled footage here than a Maniac Cop sequel.
It’s aggravating because we know that Boyle is an accomplished filmmaker, and there are flashes of magic to prove it. Spud’s story – that of a good heart energised by good hearts – is consistently exhilarating to behold. The scene where he and Renton are first reunited is dark and funny and wholly original. And when Renton visits his grieving father, he casts a shadow on the wall, as if a third person, his late mother, sits in the chair beside them – typical of the thoughtful touches Boyle always brings to his work.
T2 Trainspotting is a grimmer film than the first. Back then, Boyle juxtaposed the gaudy unreality of the junkies’ experience against the stony harshness of the Scottish sky. Now, the colours are colder throughout. The lighting is harsher, strictly real-world. Yet still, other elements are pure ‘90s: the wonky-tripod camerawork, the scattershot editing, and the insistent music video vibe.
This is a sequel with no real reason to exist, but now it does, it’s pretty much okay. We could never expect it to have the resonance and relevance of its Britpop predecessor, whose heart beat with the pulse of a nation. At times, T2 Trainspotting barely registers a pulse, especially during its wheezy second act. So, Filth remains the modern Welsh adaptation of choice – the more anarchic and affecting choice – and T2 must go down as an adequate, occasionally entertaining misfire.
T2 Trainspotting is out in cinemas now.