One of the things I have discovered about being a parent is the almost daily quantum experiences of memory. My son, now a toddler, will occasionally remind me of myself several decades ago—after which I always have a feeling like vertigo, like déjà-vu, when I simultaneously feel very young but also view the full scope of all those years in between passing like the view from a train window. It’s a reminder that life may be long at times, but overall it’s all just one moment passing into the next. T2 Trainspotting spends most of its 117 minutes hurtling through this vertigo. And as one can expect from any Danny Boyle film, the trip is bittersweet, kinetic, and at times hilarious.
The sequel to Boyle’s breakout 1996 film Trainspotting picks up 20 years after Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) fled Edinburgh with a bag of ill-gotten heroin money. The death of his mother has brought him back to the world of the first film, but in no small amount of time he is back among his old mates Spud (Ewen Bremner), Simon (Johnny Lee Miller), and Begbie (Robert Carlyle). “Auld Lang Syne” moments are short lived as present schemes collide with the memory of Renton’s decades-old betrayal. Similar to the original film, Boyle and returning screenwriter John Hodge alternate between the antics of the ruffians, now in their 40s, and the facts of the criminal world they’ve inhabited most of their lives. Heroin plays a role in this one, but it is more of one element in a larger story about squalor and class struggle in a modern Western country. The film is sort of like chatting with a friend at a party whom you still are fond of but who has made some choices that will most likely not lead to good ends.
Admirably, Boyle has worked within a budget range similar to the original film. There’s a little more surrealism on display in the sequel, but he doesn’t go too far afield from the basic cinematographic tricks he used to keep Trainspotting off-kilter. Visual highlights include the requisite heroin dream sequence, which is then followed by a more interesting come-down hallucinogenic chase through theatrical sets, tilt-shift distortion, and virtual landscapes. Similarly, cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire) keeps the look a little raw and indie, letting overexposure and rough composition fall into his frame to match the gritty subjects. In this respect, it’s more reminiscent of the indie milieu in which Trainspotting fermented and less like the slicker (and more mechanical) indie efforts that modern audiences might expect.
You could make the point that Ewen Bremner as Spud is the only person who escapes the aura of “actor” that Ewan McGregor, Johnny Lee Miller, and Robert Carlyle bring to their roughneck performances. Still, Mark Renton is a clean-cut kid, Simon is a bit of a ladies’ man, and Begbie’s face is contorted with anger most of the time, so they don’t get too Hollywood. For the most part the actors disappear into their characters, but it is hard to forget that McGregor has become a legit movie star since 1996. We’ve just seen that grin too many times in too many other roles.
The original Trainspotting had a symbiotic success with Iggy Pop’s song “Lust for Life,” and there is a similar sense of cool to the soundtrack for T2. There’s plenty of “oldster” rock that achieves new life in the closed surround sound of the theater space. There are more recent tunes, too, but most interesting is the way in which the music slips in and out of diegetic: the music is first part of the background of a scene and then takes on new meaning as it drives the action itself, a parking-ramp chase scene being a perfect example. Music is sound design for this film, and that is one of the most exciting parts. The final few moments of the movie are a perfect summation of sound, music, and image.
I don’t believe a critic should pretend to not be an audience member, to somehow imagine they are above the cinematic dream, and so I have to say something about my personal connection to the film. The original Trainspotting came out at a time when I was between heartaches, between slackerdom and career, and able to name friends who either had OD’d or were well on their way to it. So the film felt very personal and was a spark of light even as the indie-film world was sliding into mainstream commercialism. The sequel goes even deeper. In an interview about T2, Robert Carlyle explained that “the film sort of tells you to think about yourself. You are going to be thinking, ‘Fuck. What have I done with my life?’”
While I have no intentions of opening a brothel in Scotland, I can certainly sympathize with the malaise and frustration that haunts each of the once-young Scotsmen. Like Renton explains in the film, there is something deeper than nostalgia driving these men wrapped in their past. It’s not the slacker myth of Gen X—it’s the knowledge that there are some paths forever blocked or forever disguised, and the best power you have is what is within your hand’s reach. Edinburgh is just a string of breaths away from Renton’s Amsterdam, just as Hollywood is really just a few wrong turns away from 32nd and Lyndale.
Sometimes you run because you are being chased. Sometimes you run because you are late. But sometimes you run because it is the only way to see the world move.