The sequel to Trainspotting is not about drugs, it’s about people.
Review by Jake Bottiglieri
Writer’s note: Though the film is officially titled T2: Trainspotting, I will be referring to it as Trainspotting 2.
Film fans are odd when it comes to sequels. The vast majority of avid moviegoers are decidedly anti-sequel, yet it seems like they rant, rave and bitch their way straight to the box office. Ask us why we don’t like sequels and you’ll get bombarded with the same textbook answers every time: 'Too much fan service.' Well yeah, the filmmakers want the fans who enjoyed the previous entrants in the series to also enjoy the new one. 'Cash grab!' Well… yeah. Movies cost millions of dollars to make. 'Completely unnecessary!' Well, sure. But you're (probably) not a film financier or studio head.
I play devil’s advocate only because I myself am guilty of shouting these same complaints as I voice my distaste for the endless number of sequels and re-jukes we seem to be getting over the last few years. As screenwriter Max Landis has said on numerous occasions, there's no more “middle class” in the film industry. All we get are guerrilla indies and AAA blockbusters, with scant exceptions.
But after watching a film like Trainspotting 2, I wonder if those things that we shout at our screens when we discover a new sequel is being made are… well, shite? Is there not a place for strategically-plotted fan service in a film that transcends those tools dramatically? Maybe the Occam’s razor of the argument is that all those things you want to reflexively yell at the screen when you find out Hollywood's staple-gunning a sequel onto one of your favorite franchises is simply because you’ve pre-decided it will be a bad film.
Trainspotting 2 is not a bad film. Trainspotting 2 is actually quite a good film. 'Does it contain fan service?' Sure. And to be honest it’s pretty great. 'Isn’t its existence completely unnecessary?' Eye of the beholder on that one. Irvine Welsh, who wrote the book the original film is based on, did write a sequel. It’s called Porno, and from what I understand, Trainspotting 2 is something of a mesh of elements of Porno and unused material from the first book that never made it to the screen originally.
Trainspotting 2 opens with a very “meta” scene in which director Danny Boyle really lays it on thick. We get the loud music. We get the montage of shots and images—some from the first film, some almost documentary-like—and pedestrians’ faces graffitied with digital ink (very reminiscent of Brett Morgen). We lock back into Boyle’s vision of the UK, slightly updated sonically and visually since we last left it in 1996 and…. the music is snuffed as Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) suffers a heart attack on his treadmill. It’s a powerful opening, and its juxtaposition with the first film’s infamous intro is apparent. The eponymous “lust” for this life feels different 20 years later.
Having been in Amsterdam for the last few years, Renton decides to return to Edinburgh—a city that holds so much ichorous history for both himself, and us. From this point forward, we take a moment to check back into our cast of favorite junkie Scots.
Spud (Ewen Bremner) is estranged from his ex-wife and child and trying to maintain sobriety, as best as someone like Spud can.Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) is blackmailing wealthy businessmen with his girlfriend Veronika, a Bulgarian immigrant (Anjela Nedyalkova, who gives a strong, understated performance). Begbie (Robert Carlyle) is in jail, being Begbie—until he stages an elaborate (I guess, not really) escape and reunites with his wife and teenage son. We wait and watch, as the deep house music blares and all these threads slowly intertwine again.
This is the part of the film review I always hate the most as a reader, because it feels like the writer is just telling you what happens in the film. That’s not very much fun, is it? Most likely by now you will have already decided if you want to see it, so I might as well talk about deeper and more interesting things, right?
Trainspotting 2 ultimately works because—as much as it does those things that people on message boards and film forums will always bitch and moan about—it is, at its core, about these characters and their relationships. It “services” its fans by expanding upon the depth of emotion it already established in the first film. Yes, there are a few shoutouts to the first film that might be unneeded. But there are at least as many that are truly emotional and powerful. These characters are damaged, soul-scarred individuals— but they still have the will to live, however different, however ideologically deviant from us.
An easier story to tell is one about junkies who merely succumb. That's why I always felt Requiem for a Dream was inherently shallow. Its “message” provides for us absolutely nothing life-affirming, or even anything more unique than what could be gleaned from an after-school special that happened to be shot with Snorri-cams (so wait, drugs are b-b-b-BAD?).
Boyle’s Trainspotting films were never about drugs; they're about damaged people. Trainspotting 2 plays the harder game. These characters (apart from Tommy… [don’t worry, yes it comes up, and the way it comes up is great]) survived their damage in the first film, and now need to live with it. Sometimes they fail. Sometimes they succeed. Sometimes they jump onto moving cars to escape each other.
Yes, Renton has another “Choose Life” speech, and admittedly it was one of the weakest points in the film for me. But the filmmakers were smart enough to not beat you over the head with more FaceBook and topical 2017 references outside of that single scene so…. free pass.
This same film also delivers what is probably my favorite scene in any film so far this year, as Begbie remembers an odd, unexpected encounter with his father. Fans of the original novel will recognize this scene as missing from the first film. The way screenwriter John Hodge and director Danny Boyle weave this into the new sequel narrative is incredible.
The last fifth or so of the movie moves pretty quickly. The plotting does get pretty loose as things wrap up— but the last shot! To anyone that is a fan of these characters and their story: it is sublime.
In his review for Variety, Guy Lodge accused the film of 'largely pass(ing) up the opportunity to update the original's caustic social snapshot of contemporary Britain.' Dare I say… that was never the point?
These characters maintained a social commentary as a byproduct of being marred by that society. But their mirroring of society only matters if they themselves are well-crafted and strongly personified. And, you know that we give a shit about them. It’s about THE PEOPLE, Lodge. Dig it!
When I saw the first Trainspotting years ago, I felt so connected to these characters. I had never (and hopefully will never have) tried heroin. So how do you account for the empathy? Great writing, great directing, and great acting. Ain’t about the drugs, boyo. It’s about the people.
Trainspotting 2 follows suit. John Hodge’s screenplay shines most during a set piece where Renton and Sick Boy are caught robbing credit cards from a Unionist pub and must improvise a song about murdering Catholics to appease their rowdy victims. Ewan McGregor’s performance (he never phones it in) shines when we truly feel like we’re him—walking in his running shoes through this dead town with the ghosts of our past all around us. The real star is obviously Danny Boyle. Not being a tremendous supporter of his recent work, it was so energizing to feel his artistic touch drip off almost every frame of this film. And the soundtrack, my God, please buy it or at least Mediafire the shit out of it.
Choose life. Choose people. Choose this film.
Rating: 4 dead Catholics outta 5.