‘T2’ Isn’t Just A Great Sequel, It Might Change How You Think Of ‘Trainspotting’
"I’d idealised these men — these losers — in my youth, even as I’d been horrified by their actions."
It’s easy to be cynical about sequels. Cash grabs. Fan service. Fucking franchise films. Interconnected post-credits scenes for the next movie in the cinematic universe. The new normal is a list of top-grossing films dominated by sequels and spinoffs and the seventh Spider-Man film in almost as many years.
T2: Trainspotting is an obvious target for such cynicism. Two decades after the heroin-dazed black comedy became the top-grossing British film of 1996, Renton (Ewan McGregor), Spud (Ewen Bremner), Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) — now going by Simon — and Francis “Franco” Begbie (Robert Carlyle) are back in Edinburgh to fuck each others’ lives up all over again. You might dismiss the film as a desperate grasp for relevance, filled as it is with references to and even snippets of footage from the original film, like a 40-year-old trying to squeeze into skinny jeans. But that cynicism would be misdirected.
T2: Trainspotting succeeds because it plays like a darker, sadder, tireder, older version of the original film. It’s less a sequel than a reprise. You know, that moment in a musical where we return to a familiar tune, except now, the aspirational has become triumphant. Or a lament has become bittersweet. Or the mad frenzy of youth has given way to heart stents and potbellies and an aching desire for what never really was. T2: Trainspotting doesn’t attempt to recreate the dark magic of the first film. How could it? Instead, it chronicles the futility of trying to relive an idealised version of your past when you should be looking to the future.
Danny Boyle, returning to the setting that established him as an internationally acclaimed director, unapologetically strip mines the original film (and Irvine Welsh’s follow-up novel, Porno). Renton — the loveable junkie of the first film, now a tired man defined by regret — offers a bitter echo of Trainspotting’s “choose life” speech. Snide barbs about social media (greatly appreciated by the pensioners in my audience) are corroded away to reveal a wealth of bitterness. “Choose unfulfilled promise,” he spits, “and wishing you’d done it differently.” The film is full of echoes like this that fade into impotent howls.
I’m making this sound like a depressing dirge, aren’t I? Don’t worry, it’s not. While T2’s not as energetic or hilarious as its predecessor, it’s hardly arthritic. The first film spun a tale of drug overdoses, HIV and dead babies into a sprightly — if often disturbing — comedy and cultural touchstone. Though things aren’t as lively this time around, Boyle manages to turn a sober reflection on ageing and eroded ambition into a fitfully creative, frequently funny romp.
Twenty years on, Trainspotting’s foursome are all still alive, but only barely. Spud’s still an addict, only now he’s a deadbeat dad contemplating suicide. Sick Boy’s traded heroin for cocaine, having established a tenuous income stream by blackmailing the clients of his sex worker girlfriend, Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova). Begbie’s sole vice remains ultraviolence (and maybe the occasional Viagra), though he begins the film about where you’d expect him to: behind bars. Renton, who ripped his mates off of some £16,000 at the conclusion of the first film, puts up a convincing front — wife, kids, job in IT — that’s as inauthentic as his attempts to repent. Watching these men sort through the wreckage of their lives, it’s hard to believe that they ever seemed as vital and magnetic as they did 20 years ago.
Of course, they were always losers, really. When I first watched Trainspotting as a teenager, I didn’t really recognise that. It’s not that I wanted to move to Scotland and take up a heroin habit or anything, but I admired their stylish nihilism, that complete inability to give a fuck about anything or anyone. On a recent re-watch of the original film, it was clear how much I’d idealised these men — these losers — in my youth, even as I’d been horrified by their actions.
Throughout the sequel, the four men do much the same thing. Stepping out of a gym after a failed dalliance with boxing, Spud finds himself consumed with visions of the past, a nostalgic tide of images of a time gone by. He turns to writing, scribbling these memories on sickly yellow paper that soon festoons his ramshackle apartment. Begbie is similarly constrained by his past; after escaping from prison, he sets about reshaping his son’s modest dreams of hotel management in his own image: specifically, violent crime.
T2 at once indulges and resists these tendencies for nostalgia. As Simon and Renton — fresh off a successful (and hilarious) robbery themselves — spiral into lovesick, narcotic reminiscence, Veronika is unimpressed. “You know nothing. You understand nothing,” she sniffs at them, in Bulgarian. “You live in the past.” Later, the two men — having largely healed lingering wounds from Renton’s betrayal and re-established an uneasy friendship — viciously deconstruct each other’s rose-tinted view of the past. The joys of their youth were born from a tarpit of misery that can’t be so easily escaped.
Lust for Life
Trainspotting’s secret to rendering such misery into a comedy — a very black comedy, granted — was its soundtrack. Iggy Pop! David Bowie! Joy Division! Underworld! It was a formative musical experience for myself and countless others, and gave the film a ramshackle sense of cool even as it dug its nails into the grimy particulars of its characters’ lives.
Just as T2 reprises the emotions — and even chunks of plot — of its predecessor, it makes a point of revisiting many of the songs from that film. The opening credits roll over an instrumental version of Lou Reed’s ‘Perfect Day’. The score, from composer Rick Smith — who is one half of Underworld — regularly flirts with launching full-bore into ‘Born Slippy’, but only offers snippets of the iconic tune. (Underworld recorded a reprise of the tune, titled ‘Slow Slippy’, for the soundtrack.)
This soundtrack isn’t full of empty gimmicks, but a way of both evoking and interrogating the audience’s nostalgia as well as its characters. When Renton walks into his childhood bedroom — the setting of the first film’s hallucinatory withdrawal sequence, creepy baby and all — he flips through old records, past Bowie and pauses on an unseen album. The record needle goes down, and there’s the brief burst of Iggy Pop’s ‘Lust for Life’. We want to hear the song, we want to relive the stimulating energy of Trainspotting’s opening sequence, we want to be young again.
But we can’t. And neither can Renton.
He jerks the needle off the record after a split second, leaving the room throbbing with its silence. We listen to the music of our youth because it takes us back to the most simple and joyful times. We listen to our favourite songs because they remind us of who we wish we were. The songs never quite sound the same though. They’re never as energetic, as uplifting as we remember them.
It’s fitting, then, that T2 finishes back in Renton’s bedroom, with that familiar, ugly train wallpaper plastered across its walls. He plays ‘Lust for Life’ again, and the screen flickers with an instant of Ewan McGregor 20 years ago: beautiful, transitory. It doesn’t sound the same because it isn’t the same: it’s a remix, by The Prodigy.
Like T2 itself, it’s not quite as fun as the original; it’s not imbued with the same ecstatic rhythm. It’s slower, sadder. But it sounds like acceptance. Something new made from something old; something old that sounds new again.
T2 is in cinemas from today.