Few films can match the verve and impact of Danny Boyle’s 1996 phenomenon “Trainspotting,” and his 20 years’ later sequel “T2 Trainspotting” does not. That is part of its success; it does not attempt to be another “Trainspotting.” The same cast of characters is older, sadder, but not necessarily wiser 20 years later, and it is the contrast between the two films, not the comparison, that makes this second film unmissable.
At the end of the first film, Renton (Ewan McGregor) fled Scotland with the entire haul from a robbery, a haul that was meant to be split four ways. The three companions he left in the lurch have had two decades to resent him, while he built a more respectable life in Amsterdam. Spud (Ewan Bremner) remains a junky, Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) has switched from heroin to cocaine while running both a bar and a blackmail operation, and, most bitter of all, the volatile Begbie (Robert Carlyle) has been in prison.
They can easily blame Renton for their failures, but it’s hard to imagine things going any other way, give or take the 4,000 pounds he stole from each of them. When Renton’s respectability and success in Amsterdam is revealed to be less solid than he claimed, he falls into his old ways with his best pal Sick Boy. They hatch a scheme to raise enough money transform Sick Boy’s pub into a “spa.”
With the fractious but genuine camaraderie between those two old friends, the complex, nostalgic return to the past that they feel when they are together is the film’s strongest quality. Hopefully none of us experience what these guys experience, but anyone might know the feeling of trying to go back in time with someone from your past. “T2” has plenty of outrageous, disgusting sequences, just like last time, but there is also a painful, wistful element of emotional truth to it. Even if what these guys are wistful for is hardly rosy.
There are plenty of satisfying callbacks to the first movie, and literal flashbacks, and, above all, tantalizing musical cues to the soundtrack that was such a huge part of the first film. That alone is enough to demand a viewing by any “Trainspotting” fan.
However, this is its own film, and if you were to start with “T2,” you would find a witty, violent, dynamic story about middle aged criminals and drug addicts, wondering how to keep going in lives they did not realistically expect to last this long. Some of them contemplate or attempt suicide. They think often about characters whose lives did end much sooner, and their own responsibilities for those events.
Taken as a standalone film, this Danny Boyle outing marries a shocking visual style with a somber story of ruined lives, limited possibilities and terrible parenting, but makes it exciting and even, occasionally, fun. But, just as you might not have as much fun if you went out and tried to recreate the best, wildest night of your life, twenty years later, “T2” is not as exciting or groundbreaking as “Trainspotting.” That ground has already been broken, but this film is still worthwhile and interesting.
It is captivating to see these actors come back to the roles that launched their careers, like Robert Carlyle’s simmering Begbie facing down issues with his manhood. Most rewarding was watching Jonny Lee Miller at home bleaching his familiar white hair, with Ewan McGregor chatting on the sofa, the closest, by far, to an old married couple in this world.
“T2” is not a tale of redemption, and it is not a story about growing up. The beautiful camerawork and bitter humor tell a story about growing old, and scraping by, and the few bright spots the deeply flawed characters scrape together are all the brighter for the grim and gritty reality surrounding them.
“T2 Trainspotting” is currently available to rent.