“I’m moving on. Going straight, and choosing life.”
This is one of the final spoken lines of the original “Trainspotting” film, and it’s more or less how the movie ends. The protagonist makes off with 12,000 pounds that he stole from his friends (leaving an additional 4,000 secretly behind for one of them), ready to ditch a heroin-addled life of immaturity and poor choices and enter into normal, boring adulthood — choosing life, so to speak.
Now, nearly 21 years later, “T2: Trainspotting” gives those cult followers of the original film a chance to see the aftermath of that decision. Was he able to navigate the straight and narrow? Were the friends he stole from ever able to recover, or to forgive? Have they even seen each other since then?
Taking on a sequel to such a classic hit, especially after so much time, is no small or simple feat — and yet, with my blind faith in director Danny Boyle and writer John Hodge, I embarked for the theater with lofty expectations.
Initially, I was worried about that actors’ abilities to resurrect the personalities of the original “Trainspotting” squad. After all, the first film was a punchy, rebellious ode to adolescence and all the ugliness that come with it.
Twenty years on, how do the now-middle-aged thespians get back in touch with characters that were barely pubescent the last time they graced the screen? And how do they preserve the raw integrity of the original characters while also updating them in a graceful way, acknowledging that time has passed? I don’t know — but whatever they did, they definitely nailed it.
When Ewen Bremner stumbled into his first scene in “T2” as Spud, it was like he’d been playing the character for the past two decades. His innocent, clumsy demeanor from the original film remained untouched in his slack-jawed, bug-eyed visage, but his hardships since the first film have worn him into a more contemplative state of melancholy resignation.
Renton, revived by Ewan McGregor, seems initially to contrast the most sharply with the other three as well as with his former self. He appears one-by-one to his former posse armed with a wedding ring, a steady job and a normal life in Amsterdam — but this facade of stability gradually fades as he reveals his impending divorce and falls right back into the rhythm of degeneracy and loose morals.
Sick Boy, the one who effectively coaxes Renton back down to his former post on the low road, now goes by Simon, but that’s about the only move he’s made towards maturity. Jonny Lee Miller expertly balances a character whose once vibrant youth and cunning are gradually being chewed into bitterness and desperation, leaving Sick Boy almost exactly where he was in the first film, except older and royally pissed off about it.
Of course it wouldn’t be complete without Begbie, portrayed as cruel and unrelenting as ever by Robert Carlyle, returning at just the right time to shake up the other three.
“T2” starts with him having been in prison for the better part of 20 years, and with the exception of a wife and a son that he must have conceived pre-incarceration, he’s the same vengeful, violent bastard he always was. Even in his middle age, he’s exceedingly difficult to sympathize with.
The film itself is littered with nostalgic flashbacks and carefully framed references to the first movie, and I found myself with a sentimental hand over my heart an embarrassing number of times. A lesser fan of the original “Trainspotting” might scoff at the level of fan service, but it was crafted in a way that never felt over-the-top or like just a rehash for the hell of it.
For instance, there is a moment where Spud sees a young Renton run past him as he evades police, splicing footage from the 1996 film seamlessly into the new one to give the viewer a pang of desire for simpler days with simpler problems. The classic “choose life” monologue from the first film also gets a thorough sequel that matches the first in raw pessimism, but is admittedly a little too long and forced to carry quite the same power.
Of course, the film would never be able to stand on its own if it only relied on clever references to its predecessor. Some of the scenes that I most enjoyed were fresh and completely original to these new, older versions of familiar characters. In one hilarious scene, after Renton and Simon are nearly caught amidst a typical scam, the two are forced to improvise a song about a seventeenth-century battle between the Catholics and the Protestants of Britain.
In another, Spud and Renton share a comedic run through the hills of Scotland, in which Spud struggles even to stand as Renton jogs on and lectures him about choosing to be addicted to something other than heroin. Even Begbie shares a surprisingly human moment with a son he presumably hasn’t seen in years, and for a split second, the audience is very nearly able to relate to him as a person.
The little flourishes and attentions to detail throughout are what carried the movie over from just another sequel to a worthy follow-up to the ’90s classic. Danny Boyle’s directing is just as clever and strange as it was the first time, complete with unexpected angles, sharp cuts and well-composed juxtapositions. Despite the near-constant change of scenery, I never felt taken out of the plot or wanting for interest.
The music interlaced throughout could not have been chosen better, with perfectly timed throwbacks by Blondie and Queen as well as some lesser-known tracks that mesh right in. The cherry on top was the reprisal of the song “Born Slippy (Nuxx)” which achieved iconic status with its prominent use during the final scene of the first film.
My biggest complaint lies not in the quality of the primary female characters, but rather that they could have been utilized more.
Kelly Macdonald resumes her character of Diane, now a successful lawyer, but her screen time is so marginal that it might even be classified as a cameo. Veronika, the new female lead played by Anjela Nedyalkova, is tough, witty and smarter than she appears, but for much of the film she serves mostly as a sounding board for the other characters. I understand that it’s hard enough to balance the storylines of the four original gents, but I would have liked to see her character with a touch more dimensionality.
With an acknowledgement to the bias that arises from my total adoration for the first movie, I am completely satisfied to accept this ambitious feat of film as its sequel. It was raw, bitter, hilarious and devastating all at the same time, an emotional rollercoaster that I never regretted stepping into and was even a little sad to depart from.
So if you find yourself at a movie theater this week with M&M’s hidden in your coat pocket and a big decision to make, I suggest you choose your future — choose “T2.”