Choose life. Choose going out. Choose cinema. It’ll have to be the out-of-town multiplex since they shut down the local fleapit where you saw Trainspotting the first time. Choose telling yourself you won’t get ripped off for overpriced sweets, but you will anyway, thanks to the reassuring creeping pressure of commercialised capitalism. Just don’t choose the gourmet popcorn; whoever heard of “gourmet popcorn”? You’re not a hipster. Choose a Ewan McGregor film, because he's never better than when he works with Danny Boyle. Choose T2. Choose explaining, “no, not that T2”. Choose a sequel. For once, choose a sequel knowing it won’t screw up your memory of a twenty-year-old classic film that changed everything. Choose going back home and waiting impatiently to see it again.
Five minutes into the original Trainspotting and it immediately felt like something important. It was powerful, angry, completely driven filmmaking, yet affectionate and real too. Twenty years later, after a couple of false starts, we’re back in the company of Renton, Sickboy, Begbie and hapless Spud. They feel like old friends and T2 Trainspotting is fantastic. One of the best sequels of recent years, with something new to say, while refining what you know of the original film. As Danny Boyle has said, the two films speak to one another, almost as if in conversation.
Trainspotting was virtually narrated by Ewan McGregor’s Renton with a confidence that belied his self-destructive personality. T2 finds him returning to Edinburgh a sombre, lost soul. The city has left him behind and while he appears to have beaten his addiction to heroin, a new life in Amsterdam hasn’t entirely filled the hole drugs have left. It seems apt that in a film so aware of its past, he should be so unsure of his future. Cocky Renton has gone and he’s unable to make enough sense to be the narrator. His old friends aren't doing so well either. If the first film was about brazen youth on one almighty trip, this is the hangover. Choose life indeed.
Without the old arrogance, Renton can’t lead us through the story so directly, even if it’s his. He and Sickboy (Jonny Lee Miller), along with Sickboy’s sort-of-girlfriend Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova) are pursuing a half-baked plan to turn the old pub into a sauna under the guise of regenerating the area (a bizarre reminder of the Long Good Friday, when Harry tried to capitalise on the London docklands project; is this going to be similarly prescient?). Meanwhile friendly neighbourhood psychopath Begbie (Robert Carlyle) is out of prison and desperately needs to exact revenge on Renton for betraying him all those years ago.
Typically Danny Boyle themes of friends and betrayal follow, but the real story this time is Spud. He's reached his lowest point and is trying to pull himself together. Ewen Bremner elicits a perfect balance of humour and pathos in the heart of the film, as Spud finds his voice and a purpose to live. He’s a revelation, quietly stealing laughs and then the narrative. John Hodge’s screenplay is a brilliant construction and it is Bremner, that not only guides us through this film instead of McGregor, but pulls in memories of the original too. Literally so in some scenes. It’s almost as if, in capturing the ethereal nature of memory, Hodge is cheekily suggesting that the original story is being constructed right under our noses, erasing the twenty-year gap between Trainspotting and T2. Meanwhile he perfectly captures the melancholy of middle-aged men looking into the mirror and seeing their drug-fuelled, angry twenty year-old selves staring back, wondering what the hell happened. It’s a little sad but it’s very funny, especially when they’re together and the banter makes you realise how much you missed the lunatics. This is a film for an audience that grew up waiting for it.
All of the cast went onto other, more challenging roles, but have they ever done anything quite so real and yet so entertaining? McGregor finds the rhythm in the dialogue as easily as he did for Boyle in their first venture, Shallow Grave all those years ago. He and Carlyle especially seem to be having great fun with the incredible scene across two toilet cubicles. Begbie is still a thug, but he’s a more rounded thug. Carlyle is such a strong threat, whether he’s hitting someone or just thinking about hitting someone. His demon is his perfectly respectable son; just how is he going to put that embarrassment right? Elsewhere, Miller simmers with frustration, but Sickboy and Renton’s friendship is greater than the latter’s betrayal.
With an incredible screenplay in place and the actors slipping back into the characters they know better than anyone, perhaps the make or break success of the film rested with Danny Boyle all along. He’s grown as a director since 1995, but no-one could recapture the kinetic power of the first film. It would be so easy to misjudge this one, but he manages the tone perfectly and, perhaps with more freedom and time now, Edinburgh is more of a character. A more imposing one now the boys can't tame their surroundings like they used to. The deserted streets in two key scenes are especially striking. Boyle’s flourishes are almost always in service to the narrative and it’s the quiet bits you have to pay particular attention to; Spud desperately trying to ignore a bag of heroin while his crooked shadow picks at it is just one image that sticks in the mind.
Neither under nor over-Boyled (sorry), T2 in its own right might, even, be the better produced film of the two. It’ll never have the impact of the first, but they work together so well, it may be difficult to imagine one without the other. The only consistent criticisms of the film seem to be that it’s over-reliant on flashbacks (said by people who don’t know what a flashback is) and that the music is not as good. Actually, it's a brilliant, electrifying soundtrack, so long as you're not looking for something brand new. The sly uses of the original tracks are clever and The Prodigy’s remix of Lust for Life might not be as fresh, but still packs a punch.
Even if you do regret the lack of originality in an overproduced cover, in a film about men grasping for a sense of self seemingly trapped as tourists in their own past, it’s a class A cover worth choosing.