This is my review of the new T2: Trainspotting film. There are spoilers throughout and it should also be noted that the reader take heed of what’s to come in my scathingly merciless account of what I believe was more like a train-wreck than a sequel to a cult classic.
After 20 long awaited years, Danny Boyle returns once more to direct our boys, Mark “Rent Boy” Renton (Ewan McGreggor), Simon “Sick-Boy” (Johnny Lee Miller), Francis “Franco” Begbie (“Rob Caryle), and Spud (Ewan Bremmer) into a follow up film of Trainspotting, written by John Hodge and taken from Irvine Welsh’s follow-up novel “Porno”. It has all the promising features of Trainspotting (T1, as I suppose from now on it will be sluggishly referred to), with reviving soundtrack cues and cinematic effects that in 1996 screamed edgy innovation. Not only was the film aurally and visually enthralling, but the tragicomic undertones of its generational rave-youth carried it through with their life-threatening reliance on drugs and lust for criminal life. Yes, who could forget their ‘Lust for Life’; echoed by Iggy Pop’s song functioning as a satirical symbol of the heroin addicted and non-conformist attitude that manifests itself from the get-go of the opening “Choose Life” monologue. Of course, they didn’t lust for life. They lusted for heroin, and just about anything else that they could get their hands on. Yet we come to learn that the gruelling duration of 20 years apart has taken its toll on our characters in T2, as we see Mark return to Edinburgh having enjoyed a semi-successful life in Amsterdam at the expense of the pals he left behind and swindled the cash from at the end of the first film. Spud is still sadly an addict having been rejected from his ex-wife and son, Sick-Boy has replaced his exploitation of heroin onto the exploitation of his Bulgarian sex-worker girlfriend, Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova) – not to mention cradling a cocaine habit – whereas Begbie is the same deranged, bloodthirsty knife-wielder, if not more so, having spent the last 20 years locked away in prison. After staging a stabbing and succeeding in becoming an escaped convict, Begbie’s narrative overtakes Mark’s sheepishly boring one. Yet the synopsis certainly holds some promising and ambitious features, yet what is it that made the film fall so desperately short?
One of the film’s major downfalls lies bitterly with its diluted and half-assed plot and consistent slabs of unneeded nostalgic references. T2: Trainspotting became a train crash of underdeveloped plot meets the shadows of underdeveloped characters, with a sprinkling of pathetic cinematic parallels to the first film which only functioned to briefly dazzle and blind us from the lack of plot structure. It was as if “SaltBae” pepper-sprayed my eyes with distorted camera angles, hurried flash-backs, and shit tonnes of overlays and projectors in a bid to distract us from the unseasoned and undercooked product… It’s raw. Put it back in the oven. Spice it up a bit.
Simon’s vengeful grudge never carries through. Although we do momentarily enjoy a rekindled bromance between him and Mark after their brawl in the pub which sees a comic reference to Scotland’s love for Irn-Bru, seemingly to say ‘Welcome back, Mark, you bastard’. So this can perhaps be excused. The “no more Catholics left” scene was undeniably hilarious as we cracked up at the expense of the bigoted Protestants to which Simon and Mark robbed in plain sight, a scam that even Ocean’s Eleven would be proud of. Watching them lounge about on Sick Boy’s sofa, talking about George Best and dabbling in drugs and the party-lifestyle once more echoes the hedonistic foundation of their friendship and attitudes to life. Their scenes together demonstrate how you’re never too old to party with your best pal, yet this transitory fuzzy feeling of joy we get as an audience is quickly diluted by T2’s unsteady bouncing from plot to plot. Like a spinning roulette wheel, you never know where the ball is going to land next and what possible venture Boyle and Hodge are about to place their bets on by half-exploring. The love triangle between Simon, Mark, and Veronika, was un-provoking and gave little insight to Veronika as a separate character; while the attempts to set up a brothel was sidelined between all the nostalgia, and the legal counsel advice from Diane (Kelly Macdonald) and a despairing one liner from Gail (Shirley Henderson) were seemingly just thrown in for the sake of recognition from the audience. A series of rather underwhelming scenes – such as when Renton and Simon fiddle once more with heroin- wither away and leave our thirst unquenched. The projector in the room of running deer in the grass during the skag scene looked comparatively naff to Trainspotting when Renton is overdosing in the cozy realms of the carpet. Yes, I am a hypocrite for comparing the two after bashing T2’s never-ending adoration for nostalgia, but after the film has slapped you in the face with it so many times, you can’t help but compare the bits when they don’t. Not to mention that the aforementioned scenes served no purpose to the actual plot. Instead, the tiresome abuse of nostalgic references to Trainspotting became exhausted before the first half of the film was through, and this is one of the main issues that undercut T2’s potentiality and ambition. There is certainly a thin line between nostalgic appreciation and whoring out your first born child to it, which is essentially what Danny Boyle is doing. It’s needy and desperate. We don’t need reminders to Trainspotting. We already know it was brilliant. ‘You’re just making us miss it’, as one critic pointed out.
On the other hand, the films’ one redeeming feature was manifested through the character developments of Spud and Begbie, and here the cinematic features shined and begged for that BAFTA nomination. Meta-drama is a key feature of tragedy, and this rings clear in Spud’s retelling of the past through his memoirs to Begbie. We once more relive through nostalgia, laughing to Begbie’s re-enactment of him throwing the pint glass over the side of the balcony in Spud’s dingy flat, while his earlier scene shows Begbie lunging over the table in that classic freeze-frame style at a prison guard who nervously hovers over the assisted security button. It’s reminiscent of the Begbie who mercilessly slaughtered the innocent bystander noisily opening a packet of crisps in the pub in Trainspotting. It’s “classic Begbie”. Problematic, ferocious, psychopathic Begbie, who we can’t help but love. After all, as Tommy once pointed out, “what can you do? He’s a mate.”
Yet Spud’s stories also provide us with an emotional insight: on the one hand for poor Spud, the true victim of a life-long gripping addiction, but also for Begbie whereby we uncover his past. The references to his estranged father who voices ‘Trainspotting’ is annoyingly off-handed, making it all the more painful that the films’ name derives from this seemingly casual inclusion. It would have been better to not include it at all, although it does at least explain Begbie’s character. For once, we can understand Begbie’s lunacy and vengeful plots upon his backstabbing friends, heck, we even sympathize with this psychopath, which makes our separation from Renton all the more prominent since I didn’t really care if Mark died in the end. And for the main character whose virtue is as pure as angel dust in comparison to Begbie, that’s really saying something. Yet Begbie at least has character development. He transforms. He’s no longer the same man they locked away 20 years ago. He’s no longer even the same man they even showed at the beginning of the film. The ending shows us a pitiful Begbie on the sofa with his family, attempting to seek forgiveness and overlook his son’s quite amusing but honourable pursuit of hotel management.
Then there’s Spud. Who after taking full vengeance and becoming the unsuspected betrayer, placed his storyline at the forefront of genuine anticipation. The last fucking-over of all fucking-overs. Fantastic. Not to mention that Spud’s character remained true to his former self. His facial expressions were reminiscent of that caricature Spud that we loved in the first place, and when he reveals he lost his job and family in the same day due to the clock’s being turned back in the summertime, it reminds us of that typical dopey Spud, always pulling the short straw out of God’s unfair hand. Seeing Spud in this way was like seeing an old friend, which is what made his suicide scenes all the more traumatic. His barren flat with bare walls and minimal furniture speaks for what he’s been up to for the past 20 years, and echoed further by the symbolic shadow of his former self, whether that be minutes ago, or years ago, stooped over a bag of drugs as if they were sweets. His shadow shows Spud’s addiction as a separated being, controlling him and dictating his life once more, while the ‘present day’ and ‘real’ Spud sits shivering and feral in a corner. To an extent, it’s evocative of that creepy tingly feeling that we got from the dead baby scene in Trainspotting, yet once again, it fails to really go anywhere.
Spud couldn’t choose life nor the cold comforts of consumerism because heroin chose him and wouldn’t let go. This darkening aspect to the realities of heroin combined with his unsuccessful suicide attempt marks him as the films’ most lovable character. Boyle paid a lot of attention on Spud cinematically to demonstrate this, making me believe that maybe you have to be hooked on heroin to be interesting to the audience. His attempted suicide scene depicts Spud sat in a chair falling from the top of his block of crumbling grey flats, only to regain consciousness tied to a repulsive plastic bag of vomit and Renton frantically ripping it open. After all, what is Trainspotting without a bit of disgusting bodily fluids to reflect a tragic state of mind steeped in depression, desperation and lurid dreams of escape? See ‘the worst toilet in Edinburgh’ and the morning after of Spud’s sleepover at Gail’s house in the first film.
Yet this landscape of bleakness seemed to dance around what should have been seemingly obvious. The 1990s experienced the euphoria of Britpop, raves, and a new yet disillusioned Labour government at the back end of it, yet all of this is exhibited in one way or another in Trainspotting. Whereas T2’s avoidance of the Scottish referendum and tory austerity seems like a missed opportunity, especially when you consider Renton’s “Scotland’s shite” rant in the first film, you’d think this would have been revisited. Instead, we see a swanky new Edinburgh as Mark is met by a Slovenian woman and travels through the energetic vibrant city via tram, symbolically implying that the landscape Mark fled all those years ago has changed, people have changed, and things are moving forward. The opening scene depicts Mark running on a treadmill in a high-tech gym, which is again another pathetic parallel to the rhythmic opening scene in Trainspotting, but was poorly executed and slipped away into an unmemorable and pointless scene. Only upon reflection did I realise that it functioned to explain Mark’s health crisis and to show the shift in time towards a modern life, but it really could have done without it.
While the toilet cubicle scene between Renton and Begbie operated well to build up to our much-awaited anticipation of a final reunion and provided us with brief comic dialogue, the intrusion of modernity here is probably the most annoying. Once more we see Mark fall onto a car in the thrilling chase scene that pursues, slapping his hand on its bonnet and doing that menacing wild-eyed lust for life stare and grin, like a demented rabbit caught in the headlights. It’s symbolic because once more, Renton finds himself on the other end of the spectrum: outcast from life’s feast. He looks into the eyes of the nameless driver, laughing at the paradoxical irony of the whole charade, both past and present. He chose life, he conformed, yet he’s back where he started anyway on the opposing side of modern life … and on the bonnet of a car. Once more he’s the un-progressed, the junkie, the unregistered and off the radar, which is what made it all the more frustrating that it was his iPhone that went off and drew Begbie’s attention to his hiding spot prior. Not only is this incredibly predictable and overdone, it tragically massacred the whole scene that came before it and after it. It made the rendition of the only part of nostalgia that seemed worthwhile, tacky and forced.
Admittedly, we are in a time where digital technology is overtaking us at what seems like the speed of light, so it would have been silly to completely disregard this pressing characteristic of modern life. But our boys don’t belong in this world, they belong to that one: the non-conformist world. Even in the 90s they rejected consumerism, so I feel strongly that they shouldn’t have conformed to it in the second film. Yet if anyone’s phone was going to go off or pay homage to Snapchat filters, it should have been Mark’s, and I’m glad they put this burden on him than anyone else in the crew. But technology belongs to us, the millennials, the moaners, the ‘ones who have it good’. Even in the new Bridget Jones film, the replacement of her handwritten diary to an iPad screamed cringey desperation and product placement. Renton’s use of an iPhone had the similar effect here, and oh god, I’ll say it twice, the fucking snapchat filters.
Yet there is, of course, the shoddy re-write of the ‘Choose Life’ speech which rejects modern day vices while delivered clumsily in a high-end restaurant in front of a sophisticated glass of red wine. While the speech itself isn’t entirely awful, its extrication within the plot’s actual setting massively undermines its potential and overlooks its raucously obvious contradiction. “Choose Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and hope that someone, somewhere, cares”, he remarks, clearly adapting a whole new disposition of bitterness to modern society that was once an attack on consumerism fueled disappointment in the original monologue.
“Choose reality TV, slut shaming, revenge porn”, he continues, reducing our millennial modern world in one clear and eye-opening swoop. It seems to expose the zombie-youth; addicted to mind-numbing television shows, trending topics of debate without individual intellectual thought, and exposing the fear of online public humiliation. The speech really does capture the pinnacles of our modern life as we’re all led astray by technology to bear the weight of the prevailing masquerade of presenting a semi-accurate online social media presence to be kept distracted from our unsatisfying future prospects. All the while we juggle the latest ‘political correctness’ scandal, swiping out the old terminology to replace it with the new only to berate our xenophobic, bigoted and outdated family about it over Christmas dinner. “Choose a zero-hour contract, choose a two-hour journey to work and choose the same for your kids, only worse”, Renton comments, perhaps the only allusions to what should have been “Choose Brexit”. Altogether the speech is actually really good, and it provides us with that glimpse of his former self that we see fall on the car, suggesting how he misses the good ol’ days. This echoes what Sick-Boy says when he regards him as a “tourist” of his “youth”, but after all, his life is as equally shite without heroin, so he might as well just come back full-throttle.
One of the scenes that I did thoroughly love was saved until the very end, and in light of this I must admit, I am relieved that they didn’t kill off Renton. Although, perhaps a death of one of our main guys would have at least stirred up a bit of controversy in what seemed like a dead-end tie-together of a multitude of half-explored plots. It would have at least been an unwelcome twist and a narrative resolution succumb to the hands of Begbie’s twisted vengeance. Nevertheless, the ending scene in Renton’s boyhood bedroom to the track that just embodies and is Trainspotting, and exactly why Boyle kept the track as a teaser until the very end, is finally played. Renton puts on Iggy Pop’s ‘Lust for Life’, except it has a twist. Remixed by the Prodigy to create a dance spin on the original, it is an entirely apt concept to demonstrate Renton’s past and present self that has now merged into one. He can’t let go of the past (clearly), but the modern world pierces into even his most treasured tune.
It’s the one last hit of nostalgia I could stand before I’d officially OD’d and checked into rehab. Mark’s last dance to the fall of an inhaled cigarette in the famous cold-turkey room travels outwards like an underground train. After all this time, he’s back. It shows his complete reckless submission into oblivion once more. Our Rent-Boy has returned. All that running both literally and metaphorically from himself has finally caught up with him, and the hug with his father tells us this too. The long tunnel vision symbolizes Edinburgh and the boys with their distorted and limited scope of view. They can never escape it, like a train on a track their paths are predestined; only they are made for criminal scams, illegal substance abuse and dampened failures. Mark’s mid-life crisis is catastrophized once more like his youth, but ultimately it shows that time repeats itself. He seems to say, you’re damned if you do heroin, and damned if you don’t. Even if you don’t touch it for 20 years.
Veronika says “where I come from, the past is something to forget” and I think Boyle and Hodge could really do with taking a leaf out of her book. The film is visually displayed to us like Spud’s transformed flat, an array of past memories and photographs of past people pinned up here, there, and everywhere. It’s the past that holds this shamble of a plot together, but as a stand-alone story, it falls down on you like the poster of your teenage bedroom that had given way to the eroded bit of bluetack, deciding after so many years to call it a day. At least heroin gave them character in the first film. It’s the “comedown without the high” another critic points out. Yet what’s worse about it, is that it takes away the brilliance of the original Trainspotting. Your brain can no longer forget. Your eyes cannot un-see. You are scarred with the knowledge of the dismal future of middle-aged masculinity, and god damn it, they should have just left it and left us in peace with it. Peace with knowing that the boys were out there somewhere, probably up to no good.
So, choose life. Choose saving your money. Choose online streaming. Choose turning a blind eye to T2 and pretending it never happened. Or better yet, don’t watch it at all, because I wish I hadn’t.