In the U.S, Danny Boyle’s 1996 film “Trainspotting” was an arthouse hit and perhaps even a cult classic, but in the U.K. it was a phenomenon. Adapted from Irvine Welsh’s best-selling novel, it was a generation-defining bit of pop culture, a firecracker of a film which felt like the start of a new New Wave of British filmmaking, with one of the most beloved and best-selling soundtracks ever, and even a marketing campaign which stood alongside Tony Blair, Liam Gallagher and Geri Halliwell’s Union Jack dress as the key icons of so-called Cool Britannia.
In the 21 years since its release, Boyle has become an Oscar-winner and a national hero after helming the opening ceremony to the 2012 Olympic Games, while its lead actor Ewan McGregor became an A-list star and even a Jedi, with the supporting cast becoming U.S. TV staples. All of which makes a belated and much-talked about sequel that reunites the director and most of the original team (bar Kevin McKidd, whose Tommy died in the first film) a daunting prospect. Could it ever live up to the expectations set by a film that defined a generation?
At the end of the first film, Mark Renton (McGregor), having managed to get off heroin, took part in a £16,000 drug deal with pals Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), Spud (Ewan Bremner) and the psychotic Begbie (Robert Carlyle), only to flee with most of the cash (secretly giving Spud his share) and leaving Begbie to be picked up by the cops. When we meet him at the start of “T2: Trainspotting,” he’s been living in Amsterdam, married, and clean for two decades.
He returns to Edinburgh for the first time in years, seemingly because of the death of his mother. He finds Spud still an addict, estranged from Alison (Shirley Henderson, returning here in passing) and deep in despair, while Sick Boy — now going by Simon — runs his aunt’s pub, trying to raise the money to turn it into a brothel with blackmail schemes he runs with his Bulgarian sort-of-girlfriend, Veronika (newcomer Anjela Nedyalkova). When Renton comes to him, he starts plotting revenge for being ripped off back in the day, but ends up encouraging his old pal to help him in his new endeavor. Unfortunately, Begbie has just escaped after twenty years in prison, and is less likely to be swayed from bloody revenge.
The script, written again by John Hodge who penned the original (and reunited with Boyle on 2013’s rather misunderstood and underrated “Trance”), takes a few cues from Welsh’s sequel novel “Porno,” but mostly does its own thing (probably for the best, given the reaction to “Porno”). And to some degree, lets the characters do their own thing as well: Renton and Sick Boy are paired off together for most of the film as they rebuild their uneasy friendship, while Spud attempts to get clean, and Begbie embarks on a quest to find them (and to overcome sexual dysfunction).
And it has to be said, it’s a real pleasure to hang with the characters again. Oddly, it’s McGregor, who dominated the first film, who makes the most minor impression here, partly because a sober Renton, free of his shaved head and pale, skinny frame, is the character who’s changed the most. But he’s still firmly at ease as Renton and seems palpably thrilled to be reunited with Boyle, the director who made him, for the first time in two decades (they fell out, famously, when the director gave a promised role in “The Beach” to Leonardo DiCaprio, though they’ve since mended bridges).
The others never quite hit the A-list status of McGregor (though Carlyle and Miller both have hit U.S. TV shows now and Bremner is a regular supporting face in blockbusters like this year’s “Wonder Woman”), but their performances here are a stark reminder of their talents. Carlyle takes to the older Begbie like a psychotic duck headbutting water, with the same ferocious, frightening pit-bull energy, but with some added notes of pathos. Miller brings a slimy, spiky yuppie quality to Simon but never neglects the wounded little boy underneath. But it’s Bremner who might be best in show: he’s the heart and soul of the film, and the sense he gives of a wasted life and the faint glimmer of hope that remains is legitimately moving.
His cast might be older, but Boyle doesn’t make his filmmaking more sedate: as ever, there’s a whirlwind of energy to the cutting and lensing, all dutch angles, weaving Edinburgh trams (perhaps even more than the first film, it captures the spirit of the Scottish city) and sly, and sometimes not so sly, references to shots and scenes from the original (Boyle regular Anthony Dod Mantle is DP here rather than the original’s Brian Tufano, and the switch to digital feels appropriate).
And yet for all the energy, it’s a film about the gulf between youth and middle age, the way that lives can be squandered or sabotaged. And Boyle uses the picture’s status as a sequel and the threat of being compared against the 1996 movie almost as a virtue, taking every opportunity to splice in footage from the original, contrasting the aged cast with their younger selves, reminding you of characters no longer present, or evoking the passage of time. It gives the film a lovely melancholy throughout that’s rare even for a legacy-quel like this one.
So why, despite all these good qualities, does the film feel like a disappointment? Perhaps it’s that it was always going to, given the beloved status of the original and its once-in-a-generation lightning strike (though I should probably say here that I was a bit young for the original wave of “Trainspotting” mania, though I do love the first film — those for whom it was a life-changer will likely have a different relationship to the sequel).
But it feels mainly that, despite the director and cast promising that they’d only return when they found a story that deserved the telling, the search for the non-financial justification for the film to exist still goes on. Spud’s storyline is the one that justifies the return, bringing warmth, heartache, and pathos and genuinely showing a character ravaged by time and addiction. The rest ultimately kind of feels like filler, an excuse to get the characters back together but not a reason. It’s entertaining in the moment, but underwhelming as a whole.
Indeed, the dark path of the second half of the original is almost entirely absent here, the threat posed by Begbie feeling oddly defanged. It’s perhaps unfair as a criticism — Boyle clearly doesn’t want to tell another addiction story — but the knockout caper-like energy that runs throughout comes off as slight.
The director compared the film in interviews in advance to the 1970s sitcom “Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads?,” which reunited the cast of hit 1960s sitcom show “The Likely Lads” ten years on. But we didn’t realize he meant it so literally: at times it feels more like the pilot for a sitcom adaptation of “Trainspotting” than a true sequel.
There are other downsides — it disappointingly doesn’t dig much into Scottish identity in a post-referendum world, and after the genuinely interesting female characters of the original, it’s kind of a bummer that the returning women don’t get all that much to do beyond “be mums,” and Veronika never becomes quite interesting enough to justify her pivotal role in the story. But there are upsides too, including the soundtrack, which can’t quite match the original, but is certainly strong, with nods to the previous film (a different Blondie track, a hauntingly remixed “Born Slippy”) rubbing shoulders with strong contemporary choices, including multiple cuts from Edinburgh hip-hop group Young Fathers and a lovely closing use of a Wolf Alice song.
In the end, it ends up feeling like going to a festival headlining date by a reunited Britpop band. It’s great to see them back together, they look pretty good for their age, and there are transcendent moments when they play the hits. But the set goes on a bit long, and the new material’s a bit forgettable, and they’re sloppier than they used to be, and in the end, you start to wonder if it would have been better if you’d been left with your memories from back in the day. [C+]
“T2: Trainspotting” opens in the UK on January 27th, and in the U.S. on March 17th.