It’s 21 years since Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting became every teenage boy’s favourite movie. His meditation on wasted youth was bleak, but also tinged with an optimism that reflected the national mood.
Sure, there was addiction and poverty and death and despair, but Blair was about to be elected and Britpop was playing on radios across the world; for a brief moment, things looked like they might just work out for this generation.
The long-awaited, long delayed sequel, which had to overcome seemingly insurmountable animosity between the director and leading man Ewan McGregor, arrives at another moment of political and cultural upheaval, and it sets an appropriately melancholy tone. This time the focus is on dreams that came to naught, about men – and they are all men – realising they have no youth left, only the debts, literal and metaphorical, run up by their younger selves.
“Nostalgia, that’s why you’re here. You’re a tourist in your own youth,” sighs Johnny Lee Miller’s Sickboy.
The script for T2, adapted by Trainspotting screenwriter John Hodge, is drawn from unused material from the titular novel as well as Irvine Welsh’s follow-up, Porno. McGregor’s Renton is finally tempted back to Leith just as Robert Carlyle’s Begbie breaks out of the prison he’s been festering within since 1996.
Compelled to make amends for his past transgression – and also just really bored – Renton becomes entangled in Sickboy’s scheme to convert his pub in the one corner of Leith that hasn’t been gentrified into a brothel, all while evading Begbie’s psychopathic, borderline-sexual rage.
The four leads – the final member being Ewen Bremner’s hapless Spud – don’t just slip into their old roles as if they never left, they also bring with them the weight of the last two decades. Miller is especially magnetic as the cocaine-snorting Sickboy, a vicious petty conman whose speciality is filming people having sex with his escort girlfriend Veronika for the purposes of blackmail. Begbie, meanwhile, finds his explosive virulence diluted by age. He’s now as absurd as he is dangerous, utterly ill-equipped to deal with the modern world.
Even though the pieces are all present and correct, however, nobody could reasonably expect T2 to have the impact of the original, but Boyle at least nails the tricky balance between familiarity and fresh ideas (about 80-20).
There are dozens of references to the first film, from the Worst Toilet in Scotland to the trains on Renton’s wallpaper. It even flashes back to iconic scenes, such as Begbie casually tossing a glass from a balcony onto some poor lassie's head. And the music. The music! Lou Reed’s Perfect Day is back, Renton once again has sex to a Blondie song, and the opening chords of Born Slippy, now drawn-out and wistful, haunt the soundtrack, a sad call-back to Trainspotting’s final scene, in which Renton walks across London Bridge, newly minted, bursting with the limitless potential of youth.
There are times when the nostalgia threatens to suffocate. Spud’s unlikely transformation from hopeless junkie to urban poet is probably giving the people too much of what they want, and some of the stylistic quirks – recurring freeze-frames, for instance – feel unnecessary in a film that lacks the coiled energy of its predecessor.
It's also begging for an interesting female character. Boyle’s film not only fails the Bechdel test but flunks it like Spud flunked his job interview 20 years ago. Anjela Nedyalkova’s Veronika is nothing but eye candy, existing only to cause tension among the menfolk. She’s supposed to be Diane 2.0 but has none of her predecessor’s fiery spirit (Kelly Macdonald does appear but only in cameo).
But these missteps are easily forgiven when the chemistry between the leads crackles so effortlessly; trips down memory lane are seldom this much fun.
There’s a scene early on where Renton plays the first beat – the first fraction of a second – of Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life, and those who grew up with Irvine Welsh’s anti-heroes, who came of age in the 90s, who had the iconic orange poster stuck to the wall of their student digs, will be flooded with memories of Renton and Spud gleefully running from security guards through the streets of Edinburgh; shoplifted merchandise tumbling across the streets, a car skidding to a halt, an astonished smile to camera.
If you weren't there the first time, there’s not much for you here beyond a window into someone else’s nostalgia. Too bad: you missed one hell of a ride.