T2 Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 2017) 3 out of 4 stars
How does one make a sequel to a 21-year-old cult hit and make it interesting for fans both old and new? Such is the conundrum faced by director Danny Boyle (Steve Jobs) and screenwriter John Hodge (The Sweeney), who together collaborated on the original Trainspotting, released in 1996. That film profiled a group of heroin addicts in Edinburgh, all childhood friends, who back then faced a stark choice of whether to reject their self-destructive ways or die (literally and/or metaphorically). As depressive as that subject may sound to the uninitiated, both the movie and its source text, Irvine Welsh’s book of the same title, treated the characters and their nefarious activities with a peppy panache that helped explain the allure of drugs and danger for the Scottish working class of that time.
And now here we are, with T2 Trainspotting, from the same team of Boyle and Hodge. Following the novel’s publication in 1993, Welsh followed it up with a sequel, entitled Porno, in 2002, and a prequel, entitled Skagboys, in 2012, so there is precedent in expanding the tales of Renton, Sick Boy, Spud and Begbie (as the characters are named). Welsh even gave Begbie his own adventure, in 2016’s The Blade Artist. Somehow, this group of appealing lowlifes, who drink too much even when they’re off the heroin, treat women poorly and always seem to end up in some kind of violent melee, offer Welsh and company endless fodder for inventive storytelling. And why not? Who among us is without sin? In the hands of talented fabulists, even the sleaziest of sagas offers meaningful allegories.
Back for more good times are the four lead actors, Ewan McGregor (Miles Ahead) as Renton, Jonny Lee Miller (Sherlock Holmes on CBS’ Elementary) as Sick Boy (a.k.a. Simon), Ewen Bremner (Snowpiercer) as Spud and Robert Carlyle (California Solo) as Begbie. Along for the ride is newcomer Anjela Nedyalkova (The Paradise Suite) as Veronika, Simon’s ostensible girlfriend (in his mind, anyway). When last we saw them on screen, Renton had just stolen money from his friends after a big score, as a way to free himself from the thug life promoted by the older, psychopathic Begbie. Now, with the passing of his mother, he comes back to Scotland, from Amsterdam, where he has built a life that includes wife, kids and a steady job. All is not perfect, however, as we meet him in the opening, collapsing on the treadmill, either depressed, sick, or both.
And so we travel back to Edinburgh, where we find that much has changed – Slovenian immigrants now great arriving passengers at the airport with a cheery “Welcome to Edinburgh” – while also remaining the same, as Simon, though free of heroin, has switched to cocaine, and is ever as heavily involved in crime as before. His current scheme involves a hidden camera, a compromised situation with a so-called proper citizen, and Veronika. Blackmail is a tricky sport, however, and so he dreams of opening up a brothel, instead. Spud, meanwhile, still hooked on the junk, dreams of suicide, while Begbie rots in jail. Into this mess walks Renton, to an uncertain welcome.
As an exercise in narrative storytelling, the movie works quite well. The actors are in fine form, and the plot moves along swiftly, mixing humor, drama and thriller elements in a pleasant mix. Still, it’s not nearly as inventive as its predecessor – though Boyle does work in a number of flashy montages, including one in the opening that ends in Renton vomiting – and wallows a little too much in cinematic nostalgia for the 1996 original. It mostly succeeds, though, in advancing the characters’ dramatic arcs in interesting ways. I mean, who wouldn’t want to watch old friends build a whorehouse together? If that sounds appealing, then T2 Trainspotting is definitely for you.