Against all of the odds, T2 is genuinely amazing.
The following review contains allusions to plot points that are minor-ish spoilers.
“Choose Life” is a childish, petulant, nihilistic monologue delivered by a hypocritical, self-centred, hopelessly-addicted drug addict in order to justify his decision to intentionally drop out of society and indulge his destructive habit with no shame. It’s right there in Renton’s delivery at the top of the film, sneering with pure contempt, and it’s even more prevalent at the end of it, now sounding like the ramblings of a morally bankrupt opportunist hoping that repeating some empty mantra to himself enough times will suddenly imbue it with a meaning other than pure bitterness.
It’s also become a bedroom poster, listed ad verbatim to be sold to thousands of college freshmen or teenagers with zero sense of irony or awareness as to the hypocrisy brimming under its surface. I should know, I had one of my own for a brief time in my teenage years. That’s the thing about Trainspotting – somewhat by accident, this drama about a group of sycophantic drug addicts and their associated friends, most of whom are inarguably awful whilst the rest are dragged further down into that pit by said awful people, ended up embodying, capturing, and taking-over the popular culture of the mid-90s. The film’s poster and its visual design became instantly iconic, its characters became beloved, its wild sense of style and willingness to be fun at times enraptured a whole generation, it’s the sole reason why director Danny Boyle will be allowed to make films until the day that he expires, no matter how many Trances he puts out. Even to this day, Trainspotting holds up, and its cult has only gotten larger and more devoted.
“Choose Life” gets an updated reprise halfway through T2, when Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova) is questioning Renton (Ewan McGregor) on his past relationship with Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller). He initially laughs it off as some kind of childish fad all the kids used to do. But very, very quickly, he gets into a roll. As he lists further examples to Veronika, a palpable venom emerges in his voice, a contemptuous bile that once seemed fun and somewhat cool but now, 20 years on and coming from a man who is 46 years old, is alienating and uncomfortable. It’s not that Renton is now one of those caricatures of midlife crisis Dads who are yelling at those darn kids to get off his lawn. No, it’s a blunt and unvarnished realisation that this philosophy is, with no room for misinterpretation, toxic. “Choose Life” was never cool, it was never hip, it was never rebellious. It was the self-serving, self-aggrandising reasoning of a bitter, resentful addict, and clinging onto said and all of its accompanying nostalgia 20 years later is nothing to aspire to. Why romanticise, obsess, and regress over the times and people in your life that turned you into this person?
If Trainspotting was an honest depiction of life as an addict (heroin or otherwise) whilst high – with all the fun, thrills, manic energy, dangers, degenerates, and crushing lows once brought back to reality that comes with it – T2 is the brutally honest wake-up call when you’re finally sober 20 years later. The time when you look back on those older years and try to lose yourself back in those mislabelled “good old days,” only to realise exactly how pathetic it is to be stomping back across the old haunts, trying to mend fences with people whom you hold a mutually-simmering disdain for that cannot be quelled in any way, and slowly approaching the horrifying realisation that your past “mistakes” have left you and others trapped in this toxic nostalgia for good. It’s looking at these characters in the harsh light of day and realising that the ending of Trainspotting was but a mere taster of just how far gone and just how horrible all of these people are. It’s the angriest, most vicious rebuke possible to the idea of re-uniting with them in the first place: “why,” T2 unequivocally yells, “would you want to see Begbie (Robert Carlyle) again 20 years later? Even Begbie’s ‘friends’ don’t want to see Begbie again!”
Make no mistake, this is a bleak film. This is a damn bleak film, one that sags with a tangible heaviness and weariness to it. If you’re looking for that balance of Comedy and Drama that Trainspotting pulled off so well, you’re going to come away desperately trying to book a therapist in order to effectively deal with having watched it. Quite frankly, I found this film to be surprisingly upsetting at many points on a deep level because of how much I adored Trainspotting. But, and this is crucial, even with that change in tone, T2 is still undoubtedly the sequel to Trainspotting, for it is bluntly honest in much the same way that its predecessor was. The difference, of course, is that where the original was bluntly honest about drug culture and its appeal to those engaged in it, T2 is bluntly honest about the after-effects of those partaking in it and the depressing dangers of romanticising that kind of nihilism and nostalgia.
To wit, the plot involves Renton returning to Edinburgh after two decades away in Amsterdam, where he claims to have made a life for himself – relatedly, anybody familiar with Porno, the Irvine Welsh novel that this film is technically based upon, should check their expectations at the door, since that’s about as far as T2 goes in directly adapting that book. Except, once he finally speaks and opens up, that’s not really true. His Amsterdam wife is divorcing him, his business has merged and he knows that he’ll be the first on the redundancy queue, and he suffered a severe heart attack a few months’ prior that required surgery and has given him “about 30 years to live.” So he’s returned to Scotland in the throes of a midlife crisis, taking a nostalgia tour of his former misery and the life he had escaped through the ultimate betrayal all those years ago, simultaneously entranced and embittered by it, and ends up being drawn into one of Sick Boy’s get-rich schemes (that may also be an elaborate revenge plot on Sick Boy’s part) because, like so many addicts, he cannot help himself, no matter how pathetic or inadvertently offensive it may be to people like Spud (Ewen Bremner) who never managed to escape in the first place.
The meta-text there is probably not lost on you, and it’s one that T2 returns to a lot throughout its runtime. It can get a little too cutesy-poo with that at times – although it’s really quite sweet and Ewen Bremner absolutely knocks his performance out of the park, Spud’s plot in which he becomes what amounts to an Irvine Welsh surrogate is a bit much – but for the most part they are call backs done right. These aren’t cynical deployments for easy nostalgia, but they’re also not the kind of call backs that display scorn or mockery for the reason this thing exists in the first place. What they are is the harsh light of 20 years’ distance being shone directly onto these memories to expose them for what they are. So when Boyle indulges in the occasional piece of blatant visual hyper-reality, such as when Spud tries to replace his heroin addiction with physical activity and has a daydream of him becoming a world-class boxer, there’s a melancholic sadness to it.
It’s particularly prevalent in Boyle’s direction. T2 is grimy yet stylish like Trainspotting was, but in a much different way, and I’m not just talking about the switch to high-definition digital film for this one. Renton’s constant narration is gone, the near wall-to-wall needle-drops are scaled back significantly, and the pacing is much slower and more deliberately episodic with much of the film cutting between each of the four protagonists and only bringing all of them into physical contact with one another again near the end. It’s an older, more mature, more tired film but in a way that works because it’s intentionally so with actual creative and narrative spark here, unlike so many other tired and cynical “[x] Years Later” sequels to cult movies or TV shows that British Cinema in particular has been plagued with recently. One could question whether the film needs to be 2 hours long, and that is a length that the film does feel at times, but as I was watching it, it just fits. To trim the fat, to speed it up, to attempt to recreate the fun and highs of the original – which T2 does occasionally try and they’re some of the film’s weakest moments – would be to completely miss the point and become exactly the kind of film that T2 rails against.
For T2 is coming face-to-face with one’s problematic past and acknowledging with no nostalgia, no qualifiers, and as far removed from the highs it once provided, just how unequivocally shitty it was. To recognise that, with the sad exception of Spud, these are nasty, hateful, bitter, spiteful, self-centred, sycophants at best, that there is nothing glamourous or cool about any of these people, and that the choices they made as a result of being more nascent versions of the caricatures they have turned into today effectively sealed their fates into becoming the sad, repulsive people on screen before you. They may not do heroin anymore, but they are all still addicts – addicts to rage, addicts to their own past, addicts to fucking up – and the miserable truth is that most of them are unwilling to even attempt to move on. And so it ends with one character dancing to “Lust for Life” in their childhood bedroom, surrendering themselves totally to their youth, and the spectacle is intentionally a painful, alienating thing.
Boyle, screenwriter John Hodge, and the original cast have come together to expose the unseemly foundations of and then demolish their original monument, because that’s what they needed to do. For them, for us, for all our collective betterment. In doing so, and against all possibilities, they have created a sincerely excellent and deeply haunting work of cinema; “Born Slippy .NUXX” at half-speed, with the effect being as surprisingly devastating as that sounds.