Even in an age of endless sequels, no one saw T2 Trainspotting coming. Oh sure, there were rumours. Ever since Irvine Welsh wrote his own sequel to the original novel a decade ago, there have been whispers of a cinematic follow-up but few thought it would actually happen. Even fewer thought that it would be worth watching. Yet somehow against all odds, the old band got back together and created a beautifully moving sequel to the beloved 90s cult classic about heroin addicts in Edinburgh. Wisely, everyone involved waited until there was a screenplay worth shooting. It took a while but the original screenwriter John Hodge took bits and pieces of Welsh’s follow up and refashioned it into a quietly moving story about loss, friendship, regret, failure and nostalgia. Thankfully, all those themes also come through layers of dark humour, giddy characterization, and Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle at his most visually unhinged. This is a weird and wondrous little movie that might not match the breathless pleasures of the 1996 classic, yet still manages to stand on its own as a worthy follow-up. Granted, you likely need to have been young enough when you first saw Trainspotting to appreciate all the melancholy and meaning of this sequel about ageing. But hey, no one ever assumed T2 Trainspotting would be a movie for everybody.
Like the original movie, the story is more of a collection of incidents than a cohesive plot. The 20-year reunion of old addicted frenemies kicks off when Renton (Ewan McGregor) returns home from hiding out in Amsterdam after stealing a bunch of money from his buddies at the end of the last movie. The reasons are mysterious at first, but it ends up being fortuitous when Renton is at least able to stop Spud (Ewen Bremner) from killing himself following a relapse. Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) is doing slightly better, having inherited a pub from his aunt and also running a blackmail scam with his escorting girlfriend (Anjela Nedyalkova). That trio reluctantly reunite if for no other reason that there’s no substitute for old friends. There is one other member of the gang of course, Begbie (Rober Carlyle). He’s been rotting in prison since the last movie and busts out with full intention of killing the crap out of Renton. Good thing that guy just came back to town, huh?
So that’s the plot and it meanders about to give every character their own story of sorts. Like the original movie, it’s all mostly an excuse to spend time with fascinating characters, a unique world, and to slip in some personal statements. While the first film was about wayward youth (and what’s more wayward than heroin?!), this one is very much about older people looking back on that special time. Shockingly, the intervening years haven’t been kind to this gang of screw-ups. They’re all filled with regrets and miss those long ago days. Danny Boyle cleverly incorporates footage and mimics scenes/images from the last movie throughout to emphasize this painful state of nostalgia.
Like The Godfather Part II or Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset/Before Midnight, this is a rare sequel that comments on the original film and builds into something new. There’s a certainly beautiful melancholy to watching these actors/characters relive their past and a sense of sad poetry to how T2 Trainspotting interacts with the original flick, vividly making audiences feels those pangs of nostalgia along with the characters. Yet at the same time, the film is also wisely about how fruitlessly painful nostalgia can be. How it’s as powerful of an addiction as heroin and just as likely to prevent anyone from moving forward in their lives. It’s a clever trick, making this a movie that both capitalizes on and criticizes the 90s nostalgia treadmill that we’re all stuck on. Even better, Boyle and his writer John Hodge never get too preachy or precious with their games of repetition. It all feels like the only possible way to continue this story.
Of course as sad and wistful as T2 Trainspotting might feel, it’s also a goddamn blast. The film is defined by the same mixture of almost nihilistically dark comedy (aka Scottish comedy) and the relentless visual imagination of Danny Boyle that can make even the bleakest images feel magically exciting. Boyle is on directorial hyper-drive, with no camera angle too odd and every scene transformed into a set piece. Music pounds in the background at all times and the flick is sure to be one of the fastest two hours you’ll spend in a cinema all year. Hodge and Welsh’s gifts for gallows humour and complicated compound swear words haven’t faded in the least and there’s plenty of quotable profane material to inspire giggles between the pain.
The actors all slip back into their roles beautifully. McGregor and Miller share a wonderful comedic chemistry and the believably complicated and testy relationship of old friends. Robert Carlyle is hysterical as the living embodiment of drunken rage made amusingly impotent through age. And somehow Ewen Bremner emerges as the heart of the movie, with a mixture of gangly slapstick and heartbreaking humanism that serves as a reminder of what gifted performer that guy truly is despite the fact that he never got a role as good as Spud. New performers mix in well, while a few familiar faces make amusing cameos (particularly Kelly MacDonald). Yet, it’s ultimately a four-hander and there’s never a moment when it isn’t wonderful to see these performers playing together again, still the same in the ways audiences want yet different in ways that they need.
It would be a lie to claim that T2 is as good as Trainspotting. There are a few shaggy diversions that don’t go anywhere necessary, the soundtrack isn’t quite as strong (but to be fair, how could it be?), and the sequel’s relentless desire to converse with the original movie does prevent it from ever standing on its own. Thankfully these are all minor issues. The fact that Danny Boyle and company managed to fall into so few sequel traps is nothing short of a miracle. Every time Boyle or a member of the cast were asked about the possibility of a Trainspotting 2 over the last decade they all agreed that they had no interest unless they could make a movie worthy of the legacy of the original. Within seconds of watching T2 Trainspotting, it’s clear that they weren’t lying.
This is a rare sequel that exists because its creators were passionate about the project rather than buckling to commercial demands. It’s as clearly as personal of a movie for the filmmakers as Trainspotting was two decades ago and feels like a vital follow up for anyone who fell in love with that cult hit and then had the audacity to age during the intervening years. Make no mistake, that this sequel turned out so well is something of a miracle. Thank god they didn’t screw it up. Trainspotting might be enough of a classic that no crappy sequel could harm its legacy, but the fact that the follow-up actually adds to the original and offers something completely fresh yet familiar is really the best case scenario. Choose T2 Trainspotting. You won’t regret it and you’ll see some of the finest sequences based around toilets in the last 20 years. If that’s not worth the price of a ticket, what is?