WARNING: This review contains spoilers of the (now 20-year-old) original.
First of all, I have to say that I love Trainspotting. I firmly believe it to be the closest we have come to cinematic perfection. I booked myself a ticket to the first available preview screening I could find. I opted not to invite any friends with me, as I felt I needed to experience this alone, and I planned on tolerating no whispering to me halfway through.
Entering the cinema I was a bubbling ball of excitement, nerves, and even a healthy dose of anxiety, to see how director Danny Boyle revisited his classic characters two decades on. The good people of Cinema Nova in Carlton gave myself and every other patron a can of lager upon entry, to add to the atmosphere. Unfortunately if you arrived on time the can was long finished by the start of the film, however if you arrived late you’d do well to get a seat at all.
As the lights went down the atmosphere in the room was as though we were all soon to be re-introduced with close personal friends we had not seen in some time, which we were, in a sense. The first character to make a re-appearance was, fittingly, Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor). Renton enters the film jogging on a treadmill somewhere in Amsterdam, in a very subtle ode to the famous opening of the original, in which he is seen tearing down a Scottish street away from security guards, accompanied by the now-famous “Choose Life” monologue. The updated “Choose Life” speech is not deployed straight away by Screenwriters John Hodge and Irvine Welsh this time around, however.
Renton soon falls off the treadmill, and the story begins.
Trainspotting 2 revolves around Mark Renton’s return to Scotland, for reasons alluded to (Guilt? The death of his mother?), but never really made abundantly clear. He immediately visits two more of the old gang, Spud (Ewen Bremner), who is still an addict and now estranged from his wife and child and in the midst of a suicide attempt when Renton intervenes, and Sick Boy (Johnny Lee Miller), who is extorting politicians by threatening to leak videos of a, ahem, private nature that feature his eastern-European girlfriend/partner in blackmail, Veronika (I’ll let you use your imagination). All the while, Frank Begbie (Robert Carlisle) plots an escape from prison, unbeknownst to the others.
After the “pleasantries” (Sick Boy beating Renton half to death) have been exchanged, brought about by Miller’s fantastic delivery of “Hello, Mark… so what have you been up to… for twenty years?” Renton and Sick Boy, as well as Veronika, are in business together. Spud is soon reeled in to help renovate Simon’s (Sick Boy’s real name) pub into a fully-fledged brothel. Renton’s former flame, Diane (Kelly MacDonald), is briefly introduced to defend Sick Boy on well-deserved blackmail charges, but her involvement is regrettably brief.
The comedy in the script shines through very clearly, almost to the point where the somber backstory of these current and recovering addicts is forgotten, which takes some of the meaning out of their actions. The comedy is soon cut short when Begbie encourages a cellmate to stab him, before he sneaks out of hospital and appears at Sick Boy’s pub, where he is informed that Mark Renton has finally resurfaced.
All the while, Spud has become something of a casual writer, perhaps the result of a post-attempted suicide epiphany. His stories all hark back to the original film, and the opening sentences of one is identical to the opening of Irvine Welsh’s original Trainspotting novel, which is a nostalgic and beautiful touch.
The use of technology in this film is both clever and at times jarring, as Renton and Sick Boy play around with Snapchat filters, a far cry from their playful use of an air rifle in the original. It provides Trainspotting and its characters with a fresh coat of gloss and modernism, but some of the gritty magic feels lost as a result. For instance, lovable psycho Begbie has lost his lovableness, and the common excuse from the original of “But he’s mate, so what can you do?” no longer cuts it. It must be said that the magic woven throughout the 1996 original is not completely lost, however. It is strongest when the updated “Choose Life” spiel is finally let loose, along with a cheeky explanation as to how this became the group’s motto.
The cinematography is glossy, as previously stated, but excellent nonetheless. A tremendously cleverly-shot reunion of Renton and Begbie from opposite sides of a toilet cubicle wall results in a lengthy game of cat and mouse that lasts the remainder of the picture. The performances are brilliant and a mark of a group of actors who have lost nothing with age. Danny Boyle must also receive credit for bravely directing a film that placed the original’s legacy at risk. The legacy is safe in his hands, and it shows. Possibly most importantly, given how well it was done in the original, the soundtrack here really stands up. Young Fathers do the brunt of the work, and they do it very well. The Prodigy chip in with a remix of Iggy Pop’s classic Lust for Life, which closes the film and was met with warm applause.
Trainspotting was a story of youth, reckless abandon, friendship, and, in the end, betrayal. Its successor is a story of middle-age and middle-aged men trying to come to terms with what is left of them. This is summed up beautifully when Sick Boy accuses Renton of being “a tourist in your own youth”.
All said and done, it is nice to be able to peek into what these classic and widely-adored characters are up to now, and I am glad this film exists. That said, the sequel fails to hit quite the same highs of the perfectly-timed original. Tellingly, I can recount vast intricacies of the original, but much of the sequel seems to slip by the wayside. Regardless, I stayed until the projector turned off and the cleaners were already preparing for the next session. I wasn’t the only one.