How do you live up to the legacy of a movie that became a cultural institution, catalyzing an entire generation with its subversive and unfiltered nosedive into drug culture and youth disenfranchisement? It’s simple: You can’t. So let me just get this particular elephant – which may or not be a metaphorical pachyderm depending on your level of pharmaceutical enjoyment – out of the way by declaring that no, T2:Trainspotting, director Danny Boyle’s clumsily titled, long-gestating follow-up to his breakout 1996 heroine-fueled belter, is not as good as the original. That doesn’t mean it’s bad though.
It’s been 20 years since Mark “Rent Boy” Renton (Ewan McGregor) decided to follow his own iconic monologue and chose life, running out on his fellow heroin junkie friends, the money they would all have made off a drug deal in his not-so-shaky hand. He’s spent the last two decades in Amsterdam – married, working a desk job and replacing helter skelter running from one score to the next with just running on a treadmill. But faced with some personal challenges, he decides to return to his home town in Scotland. And here he finds that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Brutish Franco (Robert Carlyle) is serving a 20 year jail sentence, Spud’s (Ewen Bremner) spiraling addiction has destroyed his relationship with his ex and their son, and Simon (Johnny Lee Miller) – who has now ditched the moniker of “Sick Boy” – is stuck running the dilapidated pub he inherited from his aunt, while also dabbling in a spot of homemade porn video blackmail with the assistance of his Bulgarian sex-worker partner Veronika (Anjela Nedyalko). The estranged Renton reenters their lives just in time engage with Simon in an absurdly impressive fist fight – which includes everything from splintered pool cues to bar-top lager waterboarding – to work through their bristly personal feelings towards each other.
With the punches behind him, Renton decides to help his old friends by getting Spud clean and joining Simon in one last scheme to escape their lot. And speaking of escape, Franco is on the lam and decides to reconnect with his wife and son, hoping to take the latter on a spot of father-son housebreaking. His volcanic anger at both learning that his son is not a chip off the old criminal block and that his raging masculinity has taken a turn for the impotent, is as nothing though compared to his ever-bubbling desire to get his revenge on Renton for what he did all those years ago. And now for the first time in two decades, they’re both back in the same city again.
Screenwriter John Hodge, dipping back into Irvine Welsh’s original novel as well as its poorly received follow-up Porno, spins up a tale of sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll that is decidedly darker and more mature than those three concepts usually entail. This is no longer the story of gangly punk rock kids trying to salve the reality of their non-futures though blistering beats, techno neon lights and whatever chemicals they can pour into their veins. Instead this is a sombre treatise on the malaise of the middle-aged, swapping out Doc Martens for the grinding boot heel of grown-up disappointment. It would seem that choosing life also came with choosing responsibilities.
If that sounds like a gloomy affair that lacks the ballsy vitality of the original, that’s because it is. But it’s also gut-clutching hilarious and thrilling in places. Unfortunately Boyle and co never quite get that dichotomous balance to the sweet spot, leaving you with a movie that sometimes feels a tad more mopey than it should. There was also a rawness of character possessed by the original that is missing here. Boyle tries to recreate this in the most straight-forward ways possible through overt visual and thematic parallels with the original and similarly cued needle-drops of its great soundtrack. He even uses a reworking of Underworld’s Born Slippy, that chest-cage rattling bass-heavy musical mantra of the first film, as a haunting musical motif throughout.
And if that wasn’t enough of a nostalgic jolt, the film even straight-up replays several scenes from the original. This latter tidbit gets a bit irksome though, as T2 occasionally becomes a smidgen too beholden to its progenitor, all while not quite matching its ability to shock and push limits. Not helping is that aspects of Renton and his crew’s drug-addled lives may have been taboo then, but the desensitization of modern society – which Renton himself skewers in an updated spin on his famous diatribe – means that they don’t quite land with the same meaty impact.
That being said, when T2 is good though, it’s very good. Boyle directs with the same manic creative energy and reality-breaking flourishes that made the first film so visually interesting, but now there’s an added technical polish to it, gained from years of honing his craft. Punchy edits and vertiginous cinematography keep your eyeballs glued to the screen when Boyle works his magic. In the same vein in the acting department, Brenmer is the marvel to watch here, with Spud’s story easily being the dramatic spine of this whole piece and providing the goofy looking thespian with some real meaty material to sink his teeth into. Carlyle and Miller also put in fine showings, respectively nightmarish and skeevy. McGregor’s performance feels a bit subdued, but it’s appropriately so given the changes in his character. There is one scene though, recreating Renton’s madcap dash through the streets of Edinburgh, in which it just took one flash of that eternally boyish smile for McGregor to rekindle that fire.
A fire that may not be as consummately spread throughout the entire film, but which is definitely still there. With its sometimes maudlin pacing and tendency to engage in rear-view mirror watching, T2 will more than likely not reach the lofty iconic heights of the original in the public zeitgeist. But its cast is on top form and the film is also still wildly entertaining when it all lines up, leaving more than enough here for fans to take a hit of this and still have a reasonably good trip.