By Preston Wilder
Sick Boy may be right, I suppose: “Nostalgia, that’s why you’re here! You’re a tourist in your own youth”. Sick Boy goes by Simon nowadays (it’s his real name, after all) and has probably done best, out of the Trainspotting crew. Yes, he’s a shady businessman and aspiring blackmailer – but at least he’s not in jail, like Begbie, or still on heroin (“My best friend”) like poor useless Spud. Then there’s Mark Renton, who’s been hiding out in Amsterdam for the past 20 years with the money he stole from his friends; now back in Edinburgh, he claims to be married with kids and working in “stock management software for the retail sector” – but alas, he’s a loser, like the rest of the gang.
Nostalgia must also be the reason why director Danny Boyle decided to return to the film that made his name in 1996 (he’d already made a splash with Shallow Grave, but Trainspotting catapulted him to another level); it can’t be for the money, or because he has anything left to prove. This turns out to be a blessing, because T2 (its title a cheeky echo of the Terminator sequel?) is surprisingly heartfelt. I don’t know whether it’s a good film necessarily, and ‘what happens’ – in the strict plot sense – is often slapdash; but it’s not a cynical ploy, and it wasn’t made to squeeze some more cash out of a well-loved property. It was made because someone wanted to revisit these characters, and see what’s become of them.
Actually, original author Irvine Welsh already revisited the characters in Porno, his own sequel to Trainspotting which was published in 2002. I haven’t read that book but its description sounds quite different to T2, not in plot particulars but certainly in mood – partly, I assume, because it was set 10 years after the original events, as opposed to 20. The film finds the gang in their 40s, and their youthful antics no longer define who they are. Something else (nostalgia?) has seeped in, and the film’s most poignant idea is the way it views their lives as a whole, breaking up the present with shards of the past – not just glimpses of the guys circa Trainspotting but even further back, to bits of their childhood. It makes sense, emotionally. When you’re in your 20s – especially a wild-living junkie in your 20s – all that exists is the moment; then you get older and take a step back, starting to discern how your life can now be charted from a starting point to (yes) an end-point. And maybe you feel a little sad.
T2 doesn’t wallow, though. Boyle is a flashy director, and the film can’t be maudlin with his whiz-bang style driving the action. He always goes for visual punch, however irrelevant (random example: a simple scene of a girl visiting Spud starts with a shot of her high heels as the lift door opens), and, working with ace cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, he contrives some glorious images: a shot of Simon’s pub with its lights glowing against a reddish sky looks like something from a Tim Burton movie. The script (by John Hodge, who also wrote the original) goes from trademark grossness – blood and vomit make a cameo appearance – to unexpected vaudeville comedy in a scene where Mark and Simon have to make up a song on the spot for a hostile audience, desperately trying to find words that rhyme with ‘left’. The film is lively, if baggily structured.
Sick Boy’s role has been upgraded, maybe because Jonny Lee Miller’s career is thriving thanks to Elementary; and of course Ewan McGregor is still a star, albeit not as big as he looked like becoming at one point. The other two actors (Robert Carlyle and Ewen Bremner) aren’t as fashionable – which may be why their characters are the film’s weak links, especially Begbie (Carlyle) who seems out of place here. His explosive sociopath was always a cartoon, a cinematic version of ‘Come on then if you think you’re ’ard enough’; T2 tries to offer some dimension, but even his tragic flaw (he’s sexually impotent) turns into a punchline. Nor is Spud’s newfound transformation into an author too convincing, though of course it fits since he turns the old youthful hi-jinks into legends – just like Trainspotting too has become iconic.
T2 starts to drift in the second half, and never recovers; yet it’s not a massive problem, both because Boyle’s visuals add a constant buzz and because it keeps hitting loaded, powerful notes. Ghosts from the past are summoned – wired 90s youngsters running in the street; a tiny, still-recognisable snippet of ‘Lust for Life’ – while the old days hang in the air: guilt must be exorcised, relationships sorted with friends who may, after all, have been no more than heroin buddies. Renton explains “Choose life” to a young Bulgarian girl, this time updated to include iPhones, Facebook, 9/11, etc – then, having recycled his own youthful rage, settles back into middle age with an eloquent shrug. “Anyway. It amused us at the time”. And still does, surprisingly.
DIRECTED BY Danny Boyle
STARRING Ewan McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller, Ewen Bremner
UK 2017 117 mins