The original Trainspotting ended with great ambiguity. Through bittersweet betrayal, protagonist Renton got a clean break from his heroin habit but was also forced to leave his dearest friends. It was a powerful climax precisely because of its lack of closure. There was a certain allure to not knowing the fates of these characters, as closure was left up to the audience instead of being dictated to them, a quality that a sequel could only seek to undermine. This appreciation of ambiguity, combined with cautious skepticism towards the late trend of reviving long-dead films or film franchises for the sake of profit, left me feeling somewhat skeptical of the necessity of a Trainspotting sequel.
Set twenty years after the end of its predecessor, T2 Trainspotting opens by bringing us up to speed with the estranged group of four who were central in the first film. After a fresh start in Amsterdam with the £12,000 he ran off with, protagonist Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) appears to have moved up in the world, a seemingly successful man, the very image of the modern European. Back in Edinburgh, poor Spud (Ewen Bremner) is anything but. He’s still addicted to heroin and is failing to be a productive citizen as a result. Naturally, he has concerns that he will leave nothing of worth behind. Simon (Johnny Lee Miller), continues his shifty antics by extorting rich married men, filming them performing gross acts of indecency with an escort he employs and using it as blackmail. The ever-unpredictable and intimidating Begbie (Robert Carlyle), meanwhile, is in prison: serving a long sentence for his violent crimes over the years, and doing all that he can to get back out into the world.
A sense of inevitably hangs over this plot set-up. Here are non-heroes who appear to have reached their lot in life, ensnared in the trap of middle-age and left with no discernable direction, except towards the ground. This morbid desolation hangs heavily over T2, and what really stands out is how organic it feels. The reintroductions act as four logical endpoints for the characters we came to know in the first film. It’s a direction that feels logically conceived, and an assurance that things are off on the right note.Reeling from a personal crisis, Mark returns to Edinburgh to put make things right with the friends he betrayed.
The drab, grey rendition of the city as seen in the 90s movie is freshly recast, with neon signs and glittering vistas of modernity, and quickly becomes a symbol of the time that has passed by. Simon comes off as jaded and skeptical of Mark, and after an initially violent reaction, he plots a betrayal under the veneer of restored friendship. Spud, meanwhile, assumes a more tragic posture, so caught up in his own losses that he can’t entirely blame Mark. Whilst he perhaps comes off as more sincere than Simon, both men are bitter at the outcome of the past, having fallen into stagnant lives leaving them somewhat jealous of their ex-friend who at least appears to have it all sussed. With these moving reunions, the film settles nicely into its high stakes, high energy momentum. The characters play off of one another as strongly as they did before, as they are given plenty of fresh and memorable situations that beautifully capture both their unique internal strifes and their chemistry as a group. All the while, emphasis on drugs and drug culture is vastly reduced, as T2 opts instead for a different kind of drama. The deceit of broken friendships and the nostalgia for the simpler time of youth takes centre stage, in a powerful exploration of confronting the demons of the past and what, if anything, may lie in the future. This undoubtedly makes it a sadder experience than the enjoyably irreverent cynicism of the first film, but it also comes off as being far wiser.
That being said, for a film that could be oh so gloomy, T2 also manages to flex the opposite way, as it attains the same vividly gross sense of humour that made Trainspotting such a delight. A lesser filmmaker might struggle to reconcile drama and comedy in this way, but Boyle’s assured narrative direction manages to maintain this greatly elastic tone, as he quickly (but never clumsily) jumps between humour and tension. A particularly powerful example of this is seen in Mark’s eventual meeting with Begbie. The circumstances by which the scene comes to pass, and indeed those that follow it, are laughably absurd, but the emotional exchange between the two characters is so raw, so human, that one cannot help feel moved by it. Throughout this sequence, and others, Begbie descends to the level of villain in T2. Carlyle turns in an even stronger performance this time around, perfectly portraying a man reduced to a single drive. His thirst for vengeance has him turn his violence inwards on his old friends, causing his unhinged unpredictability become all the more menacing. As the antagonist, he’s a joy to watch, as his failure to understand human interaction at even the most basic level leads to both hilarity and great distress.
In its shaking up of the elements that made Trainspotting the runaway success that it was T2 avoids the common problems with the x-years-later revival. Boyle refuses to dress his narrative up in the kind of nostalgic callbacks that often disguise a lack of emotional resonance, and, Barring a couple of heavy-handed exceptions, callbacks to the original film feel largely organic to the story that runs here. They serve to augment the sequel’s sentimentality of the past, and not stand in for it entirely, and with the current state of filmmaking, that’s something worth praising. What makes T2 Trainspotting shine, however, is not only in Boyle’s deft handling of nostalgia but rather in how he attempts to separate it from the shadow of its predecessor, offering viewers a substantial continuation and conclusion to the Trainspotting story. Boyle manages to hit most of his beats with this sequel that, while playing to a different kind of rhythm altogether. It may not have the spark of originality that the first film did, but T2 certainly manages to be a fantastic follow-up to a cult classic.