If necessity was the driving force behind sequels there’d be a lot less sequels made. 1996’s Trainspotting was breakout hit that almost instantly became a part of the pop culture psyche. It placed director Danny Boyle on the path to his Oscar winning career and propelled Ewan McGregor to stardom. The two eventually had a falling out, but when they made peace talk of a sequel to their breakout hit began to gain traction. Just over 20 years after the first, Boyle and McGregor as well as much of the original cast return for T2 Trainspotting. While ambitious in its presentation and fascinating with its themes, T2 Trainspotting can’t recapture that past energy of the sardonic humor and tragic drama of its substance abusing characters.
Where have these characters been for the last 20 years? Mark Renton (McGregor) has taken up a life in Amsterdam after ripping off his friends at the conclusion of the last film. Simon (Jonny Lee Miller), aka Sick Boy, has been reveling in a life of ill-repute, videotaping cheating husbands with his prostitute girlfriend Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova) for the purposes of blackmail. Francis Begbie (Robert Carlyle) has been imprisoned for the past 20 years and is recently denied parole. Finally, Spud (Ewen Bremner) has been struggling with his addiction over the past two decades, slipping in and out of recovery. When Renton returns to Edinburgh, the old friends with old feuds reunite to hatch some new schemes and possibly a bit of retribution.
The cast of T2 quickly step back into their roles as if they’ve left them. McGregor recaptures that wounded charm of Renton that made him a star. There’s a tragic nature to Spud and Ewen Bremner’s alternating comedic and dramatic turn is the best performance in the film. The unstable menacing nature of Begbie is back in Robert Carlyle’s tortured return as a violently macho man seeking vengeance. That manipulative charm of Jonny Lee Miller’s Simon is present in the character’s devious duality. It seems as if the importance of these roles to each cast member’s careers are a primary driving factor in the making of this sequel and none of the film’s returning leads phone it in. The actors and characters have aged but they’re able to retain the central feel of these characters which is a modest feat in and of itself.
Even though the cast of T2 is game for reprising their roles as if nothing has happened, the same can’t be said for director Danny Boyle, whose filmmaking style has changed considerably over the past two decades. Neon drenched cinematography with extremely wide angled lenses and exaggerated tilted cameras highlight just how much Boyle’s sensibilities have changed over the years. When Boyle does try to recapture the feel of the original it doesn’t quite work as he’s simply trying to replicate a style that he doesn’t utilize anymore. There’s an audacity that Boyle brings to the presentation of the film and his stylistic diversion from the first film isn’t necessarily a problem, as much of the film’s themes are about the futility of living in the past.
Adapting the works of Irvine Welsh, Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge try to make a cautionary tale about living in the past. However, Boyle drives the point home again and again with a heavy-handedness that becomes tiresome. The film cuts back to scenes from the first film numerous times and even has its actors perform obvious nods to the original. T2 tries to look down upon its characters that are stuck in the past yet the film is often unwilling to push its action into the present without simultaneously looking back. It becomes frustrating as the film slowly nestles into a routine that simply mirrors the first and doesn’t really push its characters or the story forward.
T2 Trainspotting is pretty underwhelming because it’s a movie that really lacks a through line with its story. The first quarter of the film is catching up with the characters and it takes a while to get all of its pieces in place before moving forward with what is supposed to be the story. The sentimentality that Boyle has developed over the years has an obvious influence on how the film handles its takes on nostalgia, meaning the film doesn’t have the edge of its predecessor nor does it have much forward momentum with its narrative. It’s obvious that T2 exists not because there was that much more story to tell but because the director and the cast loved these characters and were eager to revive them once again.
There was never going to be any way that T2 Trainspotting would match the energy and vigor of the original. Though I do consider it to be a somewhat underwhelming sequel, it’s certainly never boring even if it is unnecessary. This movie feels more like a relapse than anything else, nestling back into an old habit. Sometimes it’s just best to move on and not look back.