I loved “T2 Trainspotting.”
In the interest of complete disclosure, though, I have to temper that statement with the following declarations: First, Danny Boyle is one of my favorite working directors. As such, I usually look like this while watching one of his movies:
And with this film, I was no different.
Second, I love the original “Trainspotting.” Teenage me had the film’s poster hanging on his bedroom wall, the screenplay sitting on his bookshelf, and the soundtrack, which has introduced me to my all-time favorite band, on constant repeat in his CD player.
Yes, I was a huge fan, so keep all of that in mind as you evaluate that opening statement and this review.
Here’s the thing, though. There’s a difference between how you feel about a movie and the quality of said movie. As a nascent critic, I’m working on bridging that gap and not waxing too rhapsodically about a film I enjoyed purely for personal reasons. So, even though I loved “T2,” I must admit that it has some real issues and that greatness eludes its grasp.
Still, it’s a good movie, but I think a more honest opening would be: I loved watching “T2 Trainspotting.”
The original “Trainspotting” wasn’t just about a group of Scottish punks; brutally honest, filthy, funny, and with energy to burn, it was a punk song come to life. Now we have a sequel that picks up with the lives of the original’s protagonists 20 years later. Renton (Ewan McGregor), Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), Spud (Ewen Bremner), and Begbie (Robert Carlyle), the complete original cast and then some, are all back, and the film asks an interesting question, what happens to punks when they grow older?
We champion the idea that wisdom comes with age, but just as often we equate age with selling out, and a grown up punk is especially the antithesis of cool. “T2 Trainspotting” (can we agree to just call it “Trainspotting 2” from now on?) teeters between those two poles. In some respects, it’s wiser, but in others, it’s kind of a sellout.
I once read a review that described “Trainspotting” as so entertaining that even its serious moments – of which there were truly sad ones- somehow didn’t flag the film’s (twisted) joie de vivre. But “Trainspotting 2” can’t outrun its sadness the way Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) outran the police in the original’s, now iconic, opening.
“Trainspotting 2” isn’t just about middle age; it is a middle-aged movie. It doesn’t quite have the energy of its predecessor. It’s sadder and often gives itself over to nostalgia completely. 20 years later, Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” is still on the soundtrack, but now it’s a twisted and chopped up remix, and it perfectly reflects the protagonist’s lives.
Humor still flows through the film’s veins, though. There’s a priceless sequence where Renton and Sick Boy pilfer patrons at a Protestant pub, raise suspicion, and have to perform an impromptu, unionist song to survive the encounter. The punch line that follows, in which it’s revealed why they robbed those specific patrons, is also hugely satisfying.
Still, much of the film is handed over to nostalgia. References and callbacks to the first movie abound, and while they satisfied the fan in me, they also made me groan a little. I couldn’t shake the feeling that the film was using its overwhelming nostalgia less to comment on it and more to simply wallow in it. When Renton does a variation of the “Choose Life” speech from the original, I enjoyed the updated references to social media and other 21st Century hallmarks, and I relished McGregor’s motor-mouthed and passionate delivery, but it seemed a little labored. It’s what a big budget, Hollywood sequel would do: insert a reminder that obnoxiously elbows you in the ribs as if to say, “Remember that part from the original?”
It’s also a little maudlin with clichés that would be unforgivable if they didn’t (kind of) work. The movie features a hooker with a heart of gold (well, a heart, anyway) for goodness’ sake. But the actress that plays her, Anjela Nedyalkova, is so sympathetic (okay fine…and beautiful. Like the film’s characters, I may be older, but I’m certainly not more mature) that I wouldn’t want her excised from the film.
And poor Spud is left out in the cold. Writer John Hodge simply can’t find much for him to do. And what he comes up with is, well, cheesy. Spud takes to regaling Veronika, the HHG just mentioned, with stories from the good old days with the lads. Without much of a reason, she suddenly convinces him to write them down. When he does, they’re actual passages from Irvine Welsh’s original Trainspotting novel. Again, the fanboy in me was delighted, and his writing does tie into the story nicely with the passages affecting Begbie in ways both expected and un-. But it’s also rote and culminates in a scene with his ex-wife reading the manuscript and telling him she has a perfect title for it. Boyle thankfully spares us the moment where she actually says “Trainspotting,” but oh my is it corny. What’s next? His friends read it also and Mark begins a slow clap that eventually turns into a standing ovation from the whole crew?
But a lot of the corniness is undercut by the acidic nature of the film’s humor and drama, which often intertwine into one. An emotional reunion between Mark and Sick Boy turns violent and goes on and on to the point that you can’t help but laugh. And a late sequence in a club that finally has the murderously angry Begbie coming face to face (well, sort of) with Mark (who betrayed him at the end of the first film), begins with a humorous moment where each realizes the other is in an adjacent bathroom stall and ends in a beautifully shot and surprisingly suspenseful foot chase.
And the whole movie is gorgeous. We see more sides of Edinburg than we did originally. This time around we’re treated to its beautiful, sun-draped pastoral side and the gleaming, steel drenched shopping districts. And even the decayed fringes of the town are lovingly shot as if they were locations from an oddly beautiful dystopia.
“Trainspotting 2” is more commercial than its predecessor. It’s a little more pop punk than punk rock this time. But, I guess, I am too, and it spoke to me, maybe more so than the original did all those years ago. I have more in common with these characters now than I ever did with the drug-addicts from the original. As they wallowed in their nostalgia, I recognized a lot of myself in their behavior, and it’s a wake-up call. Don’t let nostalgia rule your life. It’s a shame, though, the movie didn’t heed its own warning. But, it ends on a graceful note, suggesting you can still enjoy life even when it’s not perfect. The same goes for the movie itself; it’s definitely not perfect, but it’s still really enjoyable.
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