SICK BOY: It’s certainly a phenomenon in all walks of life.
RENTON: What do you mean?
SICK BOY: Well, at one time, you’ve got it, and then you lose it, and it’s gone forever. All walks of life: George Best, for example. Had it, lost it. Or David Bowie, or Lou Reed…
Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting 2 suffers from the hurdle of the Star Wars sequel. The story is being pitched to an aware audience.
The first Trainspotting was magnificent on its own terms: acting, directing, dialogue, source material. Add the zeitgeist to it, and it’s practically untouchable. I was a teenager in 1996, saw it in the Dallas Galleria. It was the Nineties. The end of history had arrived. Nobody knew what exactly to do. Just like every other moment in history. I wrote a glowing essay about it for my hometown paper’s teen section. I got my grandfather to go see it.
At the beginning of the new film, Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor), now living in Amsterdam, suffers a heart attack on a treadmill. Deciding life overseas has nothing for him, he returns home to Edinburgh twenty years after ripping off his mates from a smack deal. Simon (no longer called “Sick Boy,” but still played by Jonny Lee Miller) and Spud (Ewen Bremner) are not pleased to see him, and Begbie (Robert Carlyle) breaks out of prison at roughly the same time. The engine of revenge is thrown into full gear.
While the women of Trainspotting—Kelly Macdonald (Diane, now a lawyer) and Shirley Henderson (Gail, now a mother to Spud’s child)—are granted a few lines here and there, they’ve clearly grown up and are there mostly to shake their heads at the boys in the bad lofts.
As a filmmaker, you can’t walk into the room without addressing the obvious: how do you make a sequel to one of the greatest movies of an era, a piece of cinema that was famous for being irreverent, cynical, nihilistic—and on top of all that, still somehow life-affirming? The characteristics that made the first film naturally oppose bringing about a sequel. Even if the filmmakers pulled off a miracle, they couldn’t hope to recreate the perfect marriage of art to time. So what do you do?
What you do is make T2. The insight of this film is to take:
What must be true of sequels in general—the same scenarios get repeated to give the audience the same feelings; what must be true of sequels to gigantic cultural phenomena—you will never quite get the same feeling repeated; what must be true of the ex-junkie and scam artist characters—the same character flaws get repeated; what must be true of drug use—the same hit over and over again, until it’s not enough; what must be true of the reality of the modern British working class—inter-generational poverty means living in the same housing projects, living the same lives.
And then combine them all into one movie. Superficially, T2 is an action crime comedy, but its true subject is about being forty in the modern United Kingdom, just as the first one was about being British and twenty. Boyle and company want to both eat and burn their cake, too: to be nostalgic and deconstruct nostalgia.
The plot, which deals with payback and schemes, is really an excuse for all of us to check in, keep tabs, see how everybody is doing. There are flashbacks to scenes from the original movie, and childhood scenes that weren’t in the original film. T2 is mostly played out in the aged faces of its lead characters as they stumble over the twilight of youth: Aye, so it’s come to this; a real shame, innit?
Heroin, nostalgia, youth and middle age share a common aspect of longing. The first Trainspotting was a story about drug use as an escape from the depressing reality of growing up in the Age of Thatcher. Which was a nice parable about the desires of youth: a deep-burning yearn to come of age, to go on, get out, make something of yourself. T2 uses the drug nostalgia the same way; our longing for the movie that was and the age it represented is a force which keeps us from moving forward. Which are problems of middle age.
By the end of the film, when one of the character suggests she has the perfect title for the collection of stories one of the characters is working on—stories about walking through abandoned train stations in drug-addled Edinburgh—I had a feeling which existed somewhere on the spectrum between annoyance, poetic acceptance, and of-courseness. Like watching Michael Jordan come out of retirement again: it would be this way, wouldn’t it? T2 is a fine movie, but a poor sequel. Nostalgia is a worse drug than heroin. It affects more people and has more drastic consequences. Which do you reckon’s started more wars? If you think the answer is opium, may I invite you to look at the history of Germany?
There’s a scene in the original movie where Diane is talking to Mark about moving on:
DIANE: You’re not getting any younger, Mark. The world’s changing. Music’s changing. Even drugs are changing. You can’t stay in here all day dreaming about heroin and Ziggy Pop.
RENTON: It’s Iggy Pop.
DIANE: Whatever… The point is, you’ve got to find something new.
Choose life? Of course. But you can’t just choose it; it’s not as simple as that, like buying into a consumer brand. You choose to shape life, to give it meaning. It requires an act of will, not longing. Of wanting the future, which you can change, instead of the past, which you can’t. Time will not do for you what you should do yourself.
Choose your own adventure. Choose your fate. But above all, choose. Or inertia will choose for you. Which means ending up like our boys Renton, Sick Boy, Spud, and Begbie: The working-out of machinery that was set into motion a long time ago. No wonder they all return to the same pubs and dives in Edinburgh. The boys can’t move on. All things being considered, I’d rather have spent time with Diane.
Writer: John Hodge
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller, Robert Carlyle, Ewen Bremner, Kelly Macdonald
Release Date: 17 March 2017 (United States)