Consider, before you consider anything else about the sequel to Trainspotting, that the director of both films is an artist whose signal trait had been a seeming repulsion at the thought of ever going back to the well. Between the original and the new T2 (cheeky title, innit), Danny Boyle gave us the following: a black-comic romance, an island adventure, a zombie horror, a kids’ flick, a sci-fi, an Indian melodrama, a nature-survival picture, a heist film and a biopic.
That Boyle would break from his pattern of not having a pattern was cause, I think, for at least mild alarm among the faithful. Why do this? Why now? And why take the risk? Beyond the futile task of ever measuring up to a movie considered in some quarters (read: casa mia) to be a masterpiece, a limp follow-up might retroactively stain the first installment. Exhibit A: the Matrix trilogy...
Now, if you think that’s unfair — if you think this expansion on the Irvine Welsh Cinematic Universe ought to be appraised and adjudged entirely on its own merits — know that T2 makes that virtually impossible, even more so than most sequels. This is a film that takes every chance it gets to ape, echo or literally splice in 20-year-old footage from its formidable forerunner. The plot, which finds Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) returning to his native Edinburgh, rescuing Danny “Spud” Murphy (Ewen Bremner) from an attempted suicide and running afoul of Simon “Sick Boy” Williamson (Jonny Lee Miller) and Francis Begbie (Robert Carlyle), both of whom remain murderously vexed with Rents for having made off with their share of the big smack deal that concluded Trainspotting the first, eventually wends its way around to a (slight) variation on that same outcome.
Before it gets there, the movie finds ways to alight on several locations and duplicate several precise shots from the original; cue the honeyed splices. Cue, too, at least four songs used on the earlier soundtrack (Eno, Iggy, Lou, “Born Slippy”). There are, again, multiple fir fuck’s sake!s; someone calls someone else a doss cunt again. Renton, at the slightest provocation, and in a scene serving zero other purpose than to let him, reels off an updated, noticeably purpler “Choose Life” monologue. Diane (Kelly Macdonald) makes a sillily brief appearance, presumably for the sake of squeezing in an obvious line about how Mark’s current bird is too young for him. McGregor sneers that sneer. Bremner gawps his gawp.
Meantime, when they’re not busy self-referencing, T2’s creators have no idea what kind of movie they want this to be. Renton and Sick Boy eventually come to terms, more or less, the former aiding and abetting in Simon’s various scams to drum up money for his fledgling business (which is either a pub or a sauna or a brothel, maybe all three). So is T2 a buddy picture, a comic crime caper? Maybe, except then there’s Begbie, freshly escaped from prison and now not so much a drunken brawler as some kind of Midlothian terminator, stalking and stabbing and garroting his prey; in these passages Boyle dips liberally into horror and suspense.
And this is to say nothing of all the rather underdeveloped father-son stuff going on: There’s an out-of-left-field glossing of the chapter from the original novel in which the crew runs into Begbie’s father, the dipsomaniacal trainspotter of the title, in a rail station; and now Begbie’s got a grown son of his own, with whom he gets a scene that might have been touching if it didn’t come right in the middle of his savagely hunting down Mark Renton.
Not all these bits are bad. The lead-up to Spud’s attempt at self-nullification, as well as an early sequence of the recovering addict in a 12-step meeting, are nearly as poignant as anything in the first film (and might have, with due expansion, made for a better spin-off). Conversely, T2 comes singing to life after Renton and Sick Boy’s first score, as they’re hoovering up rails of coke and talking over each other so furiously that Boyle decides to subtitle the exchange in quick-crashing waves of evaporating text. (Likewise, the single episode of heroin-relapse is a cracker, which might make you wonder whether the sequel to a film about dopers should’ve maybe included more, you know, dope.)
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But for each inspired moment, there’s something doubly deflating: the snatch of dialogue in which Sick Boy explicitly lays out the beats of the plot to come; the overall tendency toward the cheap crowd-pleasing punch line; yet more of those oblique-angle shots Boyle’s come to favor and is now piling on to the point of distraction.
All of which gestures toward the bigger problem with the picture: It’s as if the filmmakers recognized the wanness of the material and settled on a strategy of padding it out with empty high style on the one hand and clever meta awareness on the other. Toward the end of T2 comes the curious development of Spud becoming a writer — and what he’s writing, on rumpled yellow pages in an unsteady hand, is Trainspotting, as in Welsh’s novel; snatching a sheet, Begbie reads out what is the real-life book’s opening line, The sweat wis lashing oafay Sick Boy.
What we’re meant to take from this is unclear, but there’s a suggestion to it, and the suggestion is more than a little cynical: that T2 is, in the final accounting, nothing more than a two-hour advertisement for itself, for the book that begat the movie that begat the movie that begat the book, and its creators are telling you they needn’t do more than keep you trapped within this circularity, where Spud is forever hapless and Begbie forever volatile and Sick Boy forever scheming and Renton forever fucking up at going straight, and you’ll eat it right up because that’s how it was when you fell in love with them. As Sick Boy says to Renton, in perhaps T2’s most thoroughly transparent moment, “Nostalgia — that’s why you’re here.”
The audience at the screening I attended gave the closing credits a thumping ovation.