“It had better not be shite, Danny.” That’s what returning cast of T2 Trainspotting – Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller and Robert Carlyle – told director Danny Boyle when they reprised their beloved, dysfunctional characters, 20 years since the original movie made history.
Trainspotting, released in 1996 and based on Irvine Welsh’s bestselling novel, unforgettably followed the exploits of four pals in Edinburgh. Three were hooked on heroin and all four got fucked up, made dreadful mistakes, ripped people off and eventually hit upon a big drug deal that promised to make them rich – “the dodgiest scam in a lifetime of dodgy scams”. We left them in the aftermath of said scam, as Renton (McGregor) took the money and ran, betraying his childhood friends.
It’s impossible to overstate how important the film became to British culture, with its killer soundtrack (Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Pulp), quotable dialogue and even (some said) a foray into heroin chic. The weight of expectation must have been crushing during production of this sequel. Luckily, the result is anything but shite. Words you could apply to T2 Trainspotting: nostalgic, funny, melancholic, unpredictable. Just like the original, the plot is so simple that you can relate even if your life doesn’t in any way resemble those of the characters (for your sake, let’s hope it doesn’t).
Renton’s spent two decades hiding out in Amsterdam, but circumstances force him to return to his hometown, where his old cronies, ne’er-do-well Sick Boy (Miller) and gormless Spud (Bremner) are running in the same old circles. Sick Boy is a pimp who runs a shit pub, while Spud has sunk back into heroin addiction. Meanwhile, deranged Begbie has escaped prison and has spent this whole time vowing revenge on Renton; the two threads come together as Renton is embroiled in an ill-advised business venture with Sick Boy and his girlfriend Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova).
Now that these characters are embedded in pop culture, it would have been easy to reduce them to parodies of themselves, a pitfall screenwriter John Hodge (who loosely based the film on Welsh’s 2002 novel Porno) has been keen to avoid. Begbie gets laughs when, for example, he simmers with impotent rage as a lawyer explains the grounds on which his parole was denied. Yet it’s not so funny when this same rage veers close to domestic violence upon Begbie’s return to his wife and son. Cleverly, the emotional ties drawing Renton back into this world are emphasised by flashbacks to the old friends in primary school.
Visual allusions to the original abound – a shot of a rancid toilet, Renton dropping the (record) needle on Iggy Pop’s ‘Lust For Life’ – and if there’s a criticism, it’s perhaps that the film doesn’t even attempt to stand separate from the original. Then again, in doing so, T2 Trainspotting invites us to question our own life choices and how far we have or haven’t veered from our own past. Sick Boy recalls sharing a needle with Renton the first time they took smack: “Your blood runs in my veins.” Renton makes all those mistakes again because, ultimately, we can’t change who we are.
With a soundtrack throbbing with new sounds from the likes of Wolf Alice and Young Fathers and a dazzling update on Renton’s iconic “Choose Life” speech, Danny Boyle has served up a film that unleashes a rush almost as satisfying as the original hit.