‘T2 Trainspotting’ mixes the new and nostalgic

by Sebastian Wurzrainer | 5/30/17 12:00am

In this era of sequels, reboots and remakes, who would have thought that “Trainspotting” would get a second chance to shine. To be sure, the original is a cult classic and generally considered one of the greatest British films ever made, but it has a fairly self-contained story that doesn’t invite further continuation. Yet through some miracle that I will not pretend to understand, director Danny Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge have managed to return over 20 years later to make a sequel that happens to be one of the best films I’ve seen so far this year.

Some sequels are highly dependent upon their predecessor, and some can exist entirely independently. “T2 Trainspotting” sits somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. I suppose you could see it without prior knowledge of the original, but you’d probably miss many of the film’s wonderful little nuances. The story picks up 20 years after the first film, which ended with Scottish heroin addict Mark “Rent Boy” Renton (Ewan McGregor) stealing 16,000 pounds in drug money from his three best mates, Daniel “Spud” Murphy (Ewen Bremner), Simon “Sick Boy” Williamson (Jonny Lee Miller) and Francis “Franco” Begbie (Robert Carlyle). “T2” begins with Renton returning to Edinburgh to confront the sins of his past only to discover the impact of his fateful decision all those years ago. While he may have used the money to clean up his act, get married and build himself a new life, not everyone else was so lucky. Both Spud and Simon have traveled farther down the rabbit hole of addiction, and Begbie is now in jail, desperate to escape and exact revenge.

Boyle has become famous in the last decade for directing award-winning and prolific work like “Slumdog Millionaire,” “127 Hours” and “Steve Jobs.” “Trainspotting,” however, was really the film to put him on the map, and it remains his most visceral and stylish work. Much of what made the film great was its ability to be a social critique without being pretentious or heavy-handed. Renton’s now-famous “Choose life” monologue is a creed against the hypocrisy and shallowness of the middle-class “cultured” society that he has chosen to reject, yet the film never portrays him or his friends as somehow superior. They are lovable yet total wrecks, and the film is honest enough to acknowledge both these facts.

“T2” does what the best follow-ups do by picking up the themes and ideas introduced in the first film and developing them further. In bad sequels or reboots, there is a woeful tendency to cite beloved scenes from the original in the hopes that the audience will nostalgically reminisce and ignore the weaknesses of the film they’re watching. “T2” certainly alludes to key moments from the original but does so intelligently by re-contextualizing those moments. For example, when the film revisits the “Choose life” speech, Renton no longer rants about the consumerist society he once hated because he is now, to some extent, a member of that society. Instead, the speech now addresses themes of aging, ennui and the impending feeling of meaninglessness and lack of purpose in life. In a memorable scene, Renton explains that he has been diagnosed with a heart condition, but the doctors predict that he will live for another 30 years. Yet Renton would prefer it if his life expectancy were only a year or two. As he sees it, he at least knows how to squander away his life for a couple of years, but he has no idea how to spend the next 30 years. I find it fascinating how universal the themes can be in a couple of films about heroin addicts.

At the screening I went to, I think I was one of approximately three people who laughed, although the three of us laughed hard. This is another way of saying that this film is simply not for everyone. Boyle once said that film is a young person’s medium, and even though he’s now 60, he still directs with the zeal of a recently graduated film student. Half of the film looks more like a music video than a cinematic feature, and it’s full of dark humor that some will undoubtedly find intensely alienating. While I loved how refreshingly unrestrained the film felt, I will admit that the brain can only handle so much of this craziness. It’s like going on a roller coaster; you never stop having fun, but at a certain point you do wonder when things will finally slow down. That being said, because the film is moving so fast, you don’t really have time to notice some of the plot cul-de-sacs and clichéd scenes.

Like its predecessor, “T2” doesn’t really have a story and thus is particularly hard to discuss in a review. The film is, when it’s all said and done, far more interested in portraying the lives of these addicts than placing them in a cohesive three-act structure. I will say that none of this mayhem would work if it weren’t for the impeccable performances of the lead actors. All four fully commit, which is necessary to sell certain scenes, like when McGregor and Miller have to perform a deeply satirical and bigoted song titled “No More Catholics!”

Near the end of the film, Renton hops on top of a moving car and holds on for dear life in an attempt to escape from Begbie. In many respects, that visual is a metaphor for the entire film. The car plows forward at 160 mph, and you have the option to either hold on or fall off. Which is funny because, like its characters, “T2 Trainspotting” often isn’t actually going anywhere in particular, but it goes with such relish that I can’t help but admire it.

Rating: 8/10