Movie review: Worlds change, people don’t in T2 Trainspotting

Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) and Begbie (Robert Carlyle) in toilets at nightclub in TriStar Pictures’ T2 TRAINSPOTTING
Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) and Begbie (Robert Carlyle) in nightclub toilets in T2 Trainspotting

The 90’s was a great decade for films, especially for independents. So to say that Trainspotting was in rare company in exemplifying the absolute best the medium offered during that time period speaks volumes.  

To me, it was as mesmerizing as it was relevant, illustrating the meteoric heights and grave-level lows of heroin addiction, both the seemingly never ending thrills and cancerous decay of lifelong friendships, and capturing a bit of Generation X in its unfiltered nature.

It was ahead of the curve in many ways while being nostalgic.

Director Danny Boyle was still young and raw, a rough-around-the-edges risk taker, still unknown outside of those who saw his first feature, Shallow Grave, but he was on to something big. He was developing his signature style.

Boyle took Scottish novelist, Irvine Welsh’s popular book of the same name, which saw mounting success as a stage play and launched its surreal take on heroin chic, outside of the UK, using the heart-racing sounds of Iggy Pop, Lou Reed and Underworld as its rocket fuel.

Ewan McGregor (who plays Mark Renton), Ewan Bremner (Spud), Jonny Lee Miller (Simon/Sickboy), Robert Carlyle (Begbie), and Kelly MacDonald (Diane) were fresh faces, sporting thick Scottish accents that soon after, became hot names in the world of television and movies.

Trainspotting was packaged perfectly. It was cool enough to revisit multiple times, largely for Welsh’s brilliant dialogue and Boyle’s inventive, trippy visuals.

The story was far removed from most viewers’ reality but revolting enough to scare away anyone lured into leading this lifestyle. One couldn’t turn away. The addiction was too good, and these characters were even better.

The mantra of that film was to “Choose Life,” which could be interpreted in many ways, but like main character Mark Renton’s memorable dive into the toilet was symbolic of how deep he was in the world of s**t, his biggest decision was eventually coming out, choosing to live, as Renton tried to kick his addiction as he could feel death’s breath on his neck.

A proper sequel was impossible to fathom and sacrilegious to its most passionate fans who feared anything might taint the original. That magic can’t easily be manufactured again. Could it? Yes and no.

Unlike Trainspotting, T2 is more stationary and somber in tone. The vicariousness, the relentlessness, and responsibility-free attitudes have been replaced for task driven, out of shape men stuck in the hamster wheel of their 40s who realize that time is ticking away.

There are those who move on with their lives, those that are able to evolve, but the reality is that many don’t. Life passes those individuals while they have yet to come to terms with their past.

And some are just unable to maintain the happiness of their youth in their adult life. No character from the first film could have foreseen how much today’s technology and social media would  someday help one to lurk in their past longer than what’s healthy.

Renton left his mates high and dry and dashed away with 16,000 pounds and they’ve been pissed at him ever since.

Truthfully, he gave Spud his share, but Sickboy was left with nothing and Begbie got thrown into the slammer. The aftershocks of that event continue to affect the group.

Renton has since been hiding away in Amsterdam until a cardiac episode offers him a moment to pause life and goes back to visit Edinburgh for the first time since he abandoned his friends.

Begbie is still behind bars but is constantly working on his escape; Sickboy, now going by his given name, Simon, is in charge of his aunt’s bar though not remotely as suave or as cool as he believed himself to be.

No doubt he is still running schemes. Spud is incredibly still alive, but burdened with more responsibilities than any junkie should be allowed. Diane? Well, let’s just say the always mature Diane is where you’d expect, having made something of her life.

Renton shows up at his parents’ home, having missed his mother’s funeral by years. His room remained unchanged since the day he left. That’s a preview of what’s to come with these four friends.

These aren’t the kind of friends who compare their large, sweeping lives and return to their corners with civility. They’ve too much history together.

Spud and Simon still harbor resentment in their best friend leaving them. Small talk seems effective but is a bandage for the real root of the problems remain between mates.

Can a new scheme heal all wounds or is it just another set up for a big fall? Then of course, there’s Begbie who is on a hunt for the man who he believes took away his formative years.

Being put away for 20 years hasn’t softened Begbie; he’s still the snarling rottweiler, the loose cannon and whenever the story starts to stall, Begbie pushes it past the point of no return.

T2: Trainspotting cast from l-r Ewan Bremner, Ewan McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller, and Robert Carlyle

Some of the plot elements of T2 are loosely based on Welsh’s sequel to Trainspotting, called Porno, wherein only ten years later, the boys reconnect to make an amateur adult film.

Parts of what happened to Sickboy have been carried over, as well as his relationship with young Nikki who he’s sucked into his latest moneymaking schemes. She plays an integral part in the film though her name is changed to Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova).

She befriends Renton and pushes Spud towards a direction we’d all like to see work out. Sickboy’s resentment and Begbie’s motivation for revenge are carry-overs too.

Thankfully, Boyle decided to ditch most of the book and find a more plausible, more honest path for our characters to travel at this new stage of their lives.

If Trainspotting was a hopeful shot of adrenaline as Renton escapes before his friends drag him down, T2 Trainspotting is a long look at the mirror on what could’ve been, what was lost and where do all of them go from here?

That may come as a surprise for those expecting a repeat of the original. Had most of the notes of the first film been repeated, it could have come off lazy and shallow. There are echoes though that fight through, whether it’s musical notes seeping through, the boys reliving their glory days, or Mark Renton giving one of his trademark rants against the world.

To the many approaching the age of 40 or beyond doing their own similar evaluation on their lives, especially those already invested in these characters from the first film, T2 will feel like a more genuine reunion, enhanced by all of the principal cast aging the full 20 years.

Time itself doesn’t change a person’s direction, but sometimes we need to dip back into what’s familiar to discover what else we want to accomplish. For those uninitiated with the first film will struggle to know how these characters have evolved if they haven’t experienced their earlier triumphs and failures.

T2 Trainspotting serves as more of an elegy to those 25-year old men, contemplative in the mistakes they’ve made and how best to put the past behind them once and for all. They are once again forced to choose life once again, no longer in pursuit of that “Perfect Day” but to find the “Lust for Life” again.


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