It’s been 20 years since that loveable group of Scottish misfits from Trainspotting took the world by storm and defined a generation. It’s 1996 and a group of rebellious heroin addicts come up with a scheme to earn some dough by engaging in a lucrative drug transaction. We are all familiar with how this ends: betrayal. Now, it’s 2017, Cool Britannia has come and gone and we are left in a post-brexit, post indy-ref world of chaos. If Trainspotting captured the zeitgeist of an era and became an instant cult-classic/pop culture phenomenon with its controversial yet profound look at youth subculture, is T2 going to provide a gripping social commentary on the modern digital age of Facebook and Instagram? The answer – pretty much no. T2 is almost neurotically obsessed with its former self to the point where it begins to feel almost like a documentary about the original film. Most of the dialogue is recalling events, conversations and memories from their younger years and the film repeatedly uses vignettes from the original. Nostalgia fuels the film and, for the most part, our interest in it as viewers. It is the audience’s love for these characters, their sense of humour and plight, that forces us to engage with the sequel.
Renton is back in Scotland after stealing the money and travelling to Amsterdam to live out his dreams, we find that a broken marriage and disappointment in life has brought him back to where it all began (so he says, but we sense that an overwhelming sense of guilt is the real reason). He finds Sick Boy/Simon has opened a pub and is using his girlfriend-cum-business-partner Veronica as a prostitute to catch high-end business men in kinky and compromising positions, extorting them for cash to fuel his cocaine addiction. Poor Spud is still a heroin addict and struggling through life after the collapse of his marriage. Finally, Franco/Begbie has been locked up in prison this whole time which has done nothing to calm his burning rage which has now reached new levels. All in all, we find the characters mostly unchanged, older, perhaps more cynical, hardened by the disappointments of life, but still the same bunch of oddballs trying to claw their way through life.
Stylistically, the movie is quite out there. Trainspotting had its unique and quirky moments such as ‘the worst toilet in Scotland’ scene where Renton climbs into literally the worst toilet in the world and emerges the other end in a blissful sea; or perhaps you recall the terrifying hallucination scene involving a dead baby crawling along the ceiling (yikes!). These iconic film moments are iconic because they meant something within the context of the film, namely, a film fuelled by heroin abuse. In T2, the eccentric stylistics of the film feel redundant in a movie that is mostly concerned with the perils of aging and the disillusion of middle-aged masculinity. The use of the freeze shot is often quite successful but is certainly overused. The bright colours that saturate the whole film, while being visually stunning, are used to no real purpose compared to the garish wallpapers and bright carpets of the first film and the camera spends more time canted than it does straight in this movie, which adds an eerie effect but feels too wacky for these washed-up men. That said, there are some great moments in T2 where all things seem to slide back into format and it is mostly due to the strength of these characters and the actor’s performances that this succeeds. At one point, Renton and Simon are speaking excitedly about their various memories and words flash up on the screen at break-neck speed, capturing some of that fast-paced wit we remember these characters for. One truly golden moment comes about half-way through the movie where Renton and Simon must improvise a song in a protestant pub. This scene is utterly hilarious and well-played by both actors, for a second it feels like we may have entered a time-machine right back to 1996.
There are still some cracking moments of comedy and humour within this film and the characters really do bounce off each other like nothing has changed. However, one thing seems missing from this movie – where are the girls? We all remember the fantastic performances of Shirley Henderson and Kelly Macdonald in Trainspotting, they were central to the plotline and truly fantastic characters. It seems like there is no space for them in T2 and this is more than a little disappointing. One scene catches us up with Diane who is now a lawyer. This scene has no weighting, in terms of plot and only really serves to up date us on the success of Diane’s character in contrast with her male counterparts. As for Gail, she is only given one measly line. It seems they have really missed an opportunity to bring the (full) gang back together in a new and exciting way here.
Furthermore, Begbie’s character seems to have become a little one-dimensional and exaggerated. We all knew he was a messed-up psychopath (“that lassie got glassed, and no cunt leaves here till we find out what cunt did it”) but that seems taken to the extreme in T2 with his character descending into the cartoon villain category. While this does have great comic value and ultimately provides the plotline for most of the film, it is stretched out a little too long and a little too thinly. Some sympathy, however, is attempted when he apologises to his son (a budding hotel manager) for his anger, explaining that they just didn’t have opportunities like he did when he was a kid, highlighting the generation gap.
T2 lacks the controversy of its original which shocked audiences world-wide with its graphic depiction of misspent youth and drug abuse. There is nothing too shocking about T2. The iconic ‘Choose Life’ speech is updated to comment upon twenty-first-century life-style but mostly feels awkwardly placed as Renton descends into a spontaneous speech mid-date. Whilst the rest of T2 does not really attempt to update its original commentary on urban British life, the speech which focuses on ‘reality TV, slut shaming, revenge porn’ and ‘zero-hour contracts’ seems only to brush the surface of contemporary life in an unrevealing way. At one point in the film, Renton and Simon mess around using snapchat filters and voice changers, while this does attempt to capture the actions of a generation and is ironically funny, there is something undeniably cringe-y about watching these middle-aged characters use the app – like receiving a text message from a family member who has just discovered the existence of emoji’s.
Perhaps it is unfair to judge a sequel so harshly against its original but with a film as popular and loved as Trainspotting, it is hard not to draw comparisons when the stake is so high. That being said, T2 is not a car-crash. It’s witty, it’s funny, it still has that dynamism that drew you in in the first place and it is engaging throughout. There are repeated throwbacks to its original which are sometimes doubled or repeated, for me this just felt a little heavy-handed and unnecessary. Instead of creating something new, T2 is constantly pulling back to its younger self just as each character desperately wishes they could re-live their misspent youth. Spud even jokes about what he should have brought with his share of the drug-money: a ‘time-machine’. A funny, moving and entertaining sequel that doesn’t utterly disappoint but doesn’t possess that same magnetism of its original. T2 delights in much the same way as re-uniting with a group of much loved old friends.