IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 117 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
After twenty years away from home, a middle-aged and sober Mark Renton returns to Edinburgh to escape his crumbling marriage in Amsterdam and, perhaps subconsciously, to face the demons of his youth. He’s soon reunited with Spud who’s trying to reconnect with his wife Gail and their child but is still hopelessly addicted to smack, and Simon, now a cocaine lover managing a dilapidated pub with a Bulgarian business partner/girlfriend named Veronika whom he uses as bait to blackmail men with respectable jobs and a good amount of money. Renton begins to help Spud and is drawn into Sick Boy’s plan to convert his pub into a brothel, but he’s unaware that Begbie has escaped from prison and wants revenge for Renton taking all that money 20 years ago….
For those of us who are old enough to have been aware of it, it seems impossible – given the depressed state of the country today – that 20 years ago we in the UK were supposedly living in ‘Cool Britannia’. It was an upbeat time and Trainspotting was at the centre of it. One of the many great things about Danny Boyle’s instant modern classic is that, when seen today, it manages to both feel very much of the time in which it came out and yet also still seem as fresh and timely and so damn entertaining [despite being basically about heroin addicts] as it was back in 1996. The ending with Renton choosing a mundane ‘normal ‘existance was one of many perfect things in the movie and, while we all enjoyed spending time with the characters and their world, I can’t imagine that anyone thought that there should be a sequel. A sequel is what we now have though, based on some of writer Irvine Welch’s book follow-up Porno and incorporating a few unused bits and pieces from the Trainspotting novel. I’ve only read the synopsis of Porno, which got a mixed response, but I very much doubt that it has the big problem that this movie sequel contains.
T2: Trainspotting [they really should have changed that title] most certainly doesn’t disgrace the original film, and that in itself is quite a feat considering how poor belated follow-ups can be. It’s stylishly directed, superbly acted and manages to differentiate itself from its predecessor by being a less humorous affair [there are laughs, but not nearly so many] and going down a few different pathways like virtually becoming a psycho thriller in its final third. However, it’s hopelessly infatuated with the 1996 film. The character of Veronika has a key line when she says about not looking to the past, and yet that’s something that the film seems unable to stop doing. The fact that it seems to be acutely aware of this shouldn’t really let it off the hook. I enjoyed T2 – how could I not with these characters, these writers [Welch and John Hodge] and this director – but the constant reminders of and references to the original film eventually became an irritant. Nostalgia is rife in today’s cinema and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it can get out of control. One of my many, many problems with The Force Awakens was that it spent so much time rehashing things from the original trilogy [especially A New Hope] and being one big nostalgia trip that it failed to feel much like an actual continuation of the franchise. T2 constantly looks back even more so, so much that – for example – it brings on Kelly Macdonald as Diane, Rentons’s underage girlfriend in Trainspotting, just for one scene and just so that she can say to Renton who’s with Veronica: “You know, she’s too young for you”. Nudge nudge wink wink. I’m sure that many Trainspotting fans are loving this stuff, but for this critic it got tired after a while and sometimes took me out of this new film.
This is a shame, because otherwise T2 honestly does have quite a lot going for it, though you can’t say that its opening doesn’t let you know what you’re in for. Renton is on a treadmill, intercut with quick images of places and people, before he loses control, falls and knocks himself, after which we hear a gentle piano rendition of the Lou Reed song Another Perfect Day which was in the original picture. Nothing wrong with that, but the film then proceeds to do either the same or the equivalent of the same for the next two hours. It’s undoubtedly great though to have Ewan McGregor, Ewan Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller and Robert Carlisle back as these characters. Though it’s been twenty years, they become them again with ease and never fail to convince and really do come across as the same people we met in 1996. For a while the film cuts between scenes which inform us of what they’ve been up to in the interim and where they are now, while not giving us much information about Renton for a while. Spud, still on the skag but also with an estranged wife [Shirley Henderson also returning] and kid, welcomes Renton [well, he did leave him a bit of money] and seems happy to try to go clean under his supervision. Coke-addicted Sick Boy attacks Renton within seconds of seeing him, then aims to ruin Renton as he supposedly rekindles their friendship. And Begbie is out of prison and even more psychotic than before.
It’s no surprise that thievery and more drug taking is soon on the cards as Renton, Sick Boy and Spud are perpetually short of cash and down on their luck. Will their fortunes change now they decide to change a pub into a brothel? Of course what plot there is soon resolves itself into a series of sketches. There’s a brilliant scene which hints as a depth rarely seen elsewhere where, as the soundtrack to From Russia With Love [honestly] blasts out of the stereo and football DVDs are playing on the TV, a coked-up Renton and Sick Boy bore the much younger Veronika senseless with tales of George Best, their 90s laddism never having really gone away. Then there’s a hilarious sequence [possibly inspired by one in The Blues Brothers] as the duo have to improvise a Battle of the Boyne-themed song to entertain a pub load of diehard loyalists whose credit cards they have just stolen en masse because they know most of them will use 1690 as a PIN. Two characters realising they’re in neighbouring cubicles is a great moment of both humour and tension. Mostly though it’s more serious than before, perhaps appropriately so considering these people are older, though some of the darkest moments are underplayed and perhaps more chilling as a result, like Spud shivering in terror in a corner while Renton and Sick Boy succumb to the lure of smack.
The plot does wrap up in quite a neat way and the thriller elements are well enough handled by Boyle that they don’t seem intrusive, though it’s disappointing that Begbie becomes a character to hate. Previously, he may have been scary, but still managed to be just a bit likeable. Here, he’s just reprehensible scum, though Carlisle really shows what a strong actor he is in the part and is so terrifying that one is on tender hooks whenever he’s on screen. Boyle returns to his old flamboyance of style with lots of jump cuts, freeze frames, and the like, and he’s served extremely well by his cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle who gives us a stylish looking film throughout [the use of green in one pub scene is especially striking] and a much glossier looking one than Trainspotting. There’s certainly some attempt made to make this sequel seem different, which makes it even more of shame that it’s forever looking back to 1996. How many shots from the older film do we really need [though quick shots of the group as kids inserted here and there do provide a slightly poignant aspect]? Renton gets to say another Choose Life speech which is very pointed, especially in the way that it hints as social media being as addictive and even damaging as some drugs. But then we also get Spud basically turning into Welch himself as he discovers he has talent as a writer and starts writing of the group’s earlier adventures. Oh how meta, and how annoying. There were several times I felt like shouting at the screen: “Yes, I get it, the first Trainspotting was great and I remember it well, now give us a break”!
The soundtrack, such a vital part of the original, also relies greatly on the past with echoes of familiar tunes often being heard. Blondie’s Dreaming really seems to fit the minds of the characters in the particular scene in which it’s heard, but elsewhere the likes of Queen, Rum DMC and Frankie Goes To Hollywood tend to come across as a little forced, and the modern stuff is just bland. T2: Trainspotting is in no way a bad movie. However, it’s a rather pointless and annoying one, coming across as being about inertia more than anything else. Maybe that’s intended, but if characters in a sequel made two decades after its forebearer don’t really seem to have changed or learnt from past mistakes, is there really much point in making the sequel in the first place? The final scene may bring things round full circle but is also crushingly depressing – which I’m not sure is what was intended. Taken as a whole, T2: Trainspotting could have been a hell of a lot worse and I didn’t come out of it feeling cheated. Parts of it are terrific and as I said the lead actors give it their all. However, it does so much looking back and worshipping of Trainspotting that it gives the impression that Boyle, Hodge and Welch didn’t have much faith in their new material – and that’s a shame, because some of it is good and just about worth the price of a cinema ticket.