T2 Trainspotting: Older, Scarcely Wiser

Danny Boyle's nostalgic sequel to his breakthrough film proves that you can go home again.

Jaap Buitendijk / TriStar / Sony

The last time we saw Mark Renton, in 1996’s Trainspotting, he was “choosing life.” He was going to be “just like us.”

Well, maybe not just like us. He had, after all, stolen £16,000 that he and his three best mates had scored in a heroin deal. But apart from that minor bit of drug-related larceny and personal betrayal, he was going straight. Maybe.

A lot has happened since then. For starters, the actor who played Renton, Ewan McGregor, has gotten to play, and then ceased to play, Obi-Wan Kenobi. More to the point, McGregor has returned to play Renton again in T2 Trainspotting, the director Danny Boyle’s follow-up to his breakthrough film. After a two-decade stint in Amsterdam, Renton has come back to Edinburgh to face the friends he ripped off all those years earlier. And now he’s being pursued by the Terminator-1000, a shapeshifting robot made of liquid … .

No wait, sorry. Wrong T2. In fact, Renton is being menaced by a far more frightening and implacable killer, Francis Begbie (Robert Carlyle). The most violent and irascible of Renton’s old mates, Begbie has been serving a prison sentence for murder. But after being denied parole once again (“They think I’m one o’ those cunts from the Bible gonna fucking live forever?” he declares with customary eloquence), he contrives to release himself on his own recognizance.

Renton’s other old mates are up to their usual mischief as well: Spud (Ewen Bremner) is still a junkie, now buying smack from kids half his age; and Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) having shifted from heroin to coke, is running small-time, prostitution-and-blackmail cons with a Bulgarian woman, Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova) whom he—but no one else, including her—considers to be his girlfriend.

Unlike the original Trainspotting, which was largely episodic and held together principally by McGregor’s brilliant voiceover, T2 has the rudiments of a plot: Sick Boy and Veronika are trying to scam a government loan in order to turn the wretched pub he inherited from his aunt into a cutting-edge “sauna” (i.e., brothel), and various of the other mates wander into and out of the scheme. As before, there is an “opportunity” followed by a “betrayal”—a sequence Boyle says mirrors his own troubled history with star McGregor.

There are countless witty callbacks to the first film: an updated yet familiar soundtrack (featuring a remix of Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life,” made iconic by Trainspotting’s opening sequence), a Renton grin into the windshield of a car he’s just fallen off, and a cunning cameo by Kelly Macdonald. Sick Boy’s pellet rifle makes a reappearance, as does Renton’s boyhood train-car wallpaper. We get a glimpse of what is almost certainly the second-worst toilet in Scotland (although there’s a far better bathroom-stall scene yet to come). And inevitably, Renton offers a variation on his “choose life” speech, though one more appropriate to where he finds himself at age 46: “choose unfulfilled promise … choose never learning from your mistakes … choose disappointment.”

And there is, of course, plenty of history for the lads to work through, beginning with the fact of Renton’s having stolen all that cash last time around. There are remembrances, too, of those who didn’t make it: their friend Tommy, Sick Boy’s infant daughter. There’s even a quiet nod to David Bowie.

But time waits for no one, least of all a bunch of punk kids. Edinburgh is put to much greater use than in the first film—in which the boys spent most of their time locked away in heroin-space—and the city has grown up even if they haven’t, now full of students and Eastern Europeans. (A sharp gag has Renton met at the airport by kilt-wearing Slovenian girls announcing, “Welcome to Scotland.”) As elsewhere, though, the widening schism between cosmopolitans and non-cosmopolitans is in clear evidence. Perhaps the movie’s best scene takes place in a Glasgow pub full of angry, anti-Catholic nationalists or, as the film describes them with uncanny timeliness, “the folks that have been abandoned by the political class.”

But mostly Boyle is content to wind his characters up and let them bounce off one another. And thank goodness. Befitting the age of its protagonists, T2 lacks the urgent, anarchic energy of its predecessor. But Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge have lost none of their eye for style or ear for dialogue. And the cast inhabits their long-ago roles as if they’d never taken them off. The result is a film nowhere near as revelatory as Trainspotting, but in some ways more satisfying, the proper closing of a tale that had been left open-ended.

“You’re a tourist in your own youth,” Sick Boy tells Renton at one point in the film. T2 Trainspotting offers compelling proof that there are far worse things to be.