In 1996 Danny Boyle changed the face of British cinema with his zeitgeist busting tale of poverty line existence in the high rise jungle of Edinburgh. Trainspotting was seminal, infinitely quotable, with a soundtrack to a generation’s youth, opening the world’s ears to vocabulary long before anyone had ever heard of the Urban Dictionary. Strip away all of that and it was simply an adrenalin shot to the heart piece of stellar filmmaking. Why bother waiting for the next train? Especially one that has taken two decades to arrive.
The first thing you notice about T2 Trainspotting is how it isn’t trying to match those feats. That was a different time, and now another story needs telling. Opening with a montage that hints at trying to be a social commentary on 2017, we see Renton (Ewan McGregor) on a treadmill, still running all these years after we last saw him pacing across the Thames, yet now he’s going nowhere. He slips, he falls, and he’s out cold. Cue opening credits and a nostalgic dream of when he was a young boy playing football with his mates; Simon (Jonny Lee Miller), Begbie (Robert Carlyle), and Spud (Ewan Bremner).
It’s an intro that sets the tone. T2 is going to be reflective, not a repeat. Even the credit music is a skewed version of Lou Reed’s Perfect Day. It’s the same, but different, but then so are our characters.
Renton is returning home for the first time since doing a runner with £16,000 from the first movie’s climactic heroin scam. Sick Boy, now simply going by Simon, is running his auntie’s failing pub, whilst performing bribery scams with his girlfriend, Veronika (the excellent Anjea Nedyalkova). Spud is an absent father, his inability to escape the ‘scag’ leaving him alone and suicidal. That leaves everyone’s favourite pint glass throwing psychopath, Franco Begbie (Robert Carlyle), locked up at Her Majesty’s behest.
Possibly the most difficult film Danny Boyle has had to make, due to expectations and whether it was necessary. Well, after two hours in the company of these craggy echoes from the past, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. T2’s greatest achievement is that it knows exactly what it is and its own limitations as a sequel. There’s no lazy riffing on the iconic moments from the first, instead clips from Trainspotting are expertly woven in to stir up your own nostalgia. Even Underworld’s Born Slippy is given a complete reworking, now entitled Slow Slippy, and much like the rest of the film, it’s different, familiar, but brilliant.
Boyle isn’t on cruise control either, this is as creative and vibrant as you might expect from a director with his own unique imprint; a sit down at Renton’s family dinner table is heartbreaking because of the simple use of a shadow. A journey in an apartment block elevator is sprinkled with stardust as the numbers light up the side of the building. A pivotal moment for Spud is so beautifully orchestrated to Ewan Bremner’s voiceover and some wonderful editing. There are subtitled moments, call-back freeze frames, and a finale that’s as stimulating as it is silly (the films only real misstep). This isn’t the raw immediacy of Boyle 96, but a director who has honed his talents waiting for this motley crew to grow old.
The foursome slip into their skins like it was a heartbeat since that London bedsit. McGregor, Lee Miller, and Carlyle personify their respective characters in a way that’ll make you feel warm and fuzzy. However, the real heart of Trainspotting 2 belongs to Ewan Bremner, the only one who seems to have been trapped in a world the others have left behind. His arc is lump in the throat stuff, and in a film where misty-eyed recollections are around every cobbled street corner, Bremner shines as bright as Danny Boyle’s Edinburgh sun.
Image: Sony Pictures
T2 is perhaps judged best looking at one of the signature moments of both films. Trainspotting’s Choose Life monologue was a smug takedown of the frivolity of a consumerist society. It made you nod, smirk, and laugh. The Choose Life monologue this time around is a resonant, emotive call to arms, as of its time as the 96 version was, just different.