While film is a medium that creates permanent, lasting pieces of art, it can be difficult to examine a movie that had an enormous cultural impact many years after the fact. This applies to both landmarks of the art form and cult classics that touched the zeitgeist in a meaningful way, an important distinction for the comparison that I'm about to make. Just as today's audiences will never be able to fully understand how revolutionary Orson Welles' Citizen Kane was in 1941, I'll never be able to truly appreciate everything that was so daring and so thrilling about Danny Boyle's Trainspotting. In 1996, the drug dramedy was hailed as an energetic masterpiece, a film that captured the spirit of rebellious 90s youth in bold, brilliantly funny strokes. It was a hallmark of the decade, commonly featured on all "Best of the 90s...." lists, and it was responsible for launching the careers of star Ewan McGregor and director Danny Boyle.
Knowing that the sequel was coming soon, I decided to finally watch the original after hearing critics sing its praises for years. Viewed today, Trainspotting is still clever and breathtaking at times, but it'll never have the same impact for modern audiences as it did for those who saw it during its original release. I enjoyed the film, but I still felt like I was out of the loop. And for that reason, I'm probably the wrong person to tell you whether or not Danny Boyle's long-awaited follow-up, T2 Trainspotting, is worth your time. I wasn't even alive in 1996- these characters just don't have the same meaning to me as they do for so many others. T2 relies heavily on the legacy of the original film, with plenty of flashbacks and moments that look back at the lives of our main quartet nearly two decades ago. For those who count Trainspotting as a formative moment in their movie-going lives, this sequel will be incredibly satisfying. But for those who view this as just another sequel, T2 will be a bit more of a bumpy ride -it has some moments of energetic brilliance and other moments of haphazard sloppiness. Everything comes together in the end, but T2 isn't the near-perfect follow-up that it should be.
*This review will contain spoilers for the original film.*
Set 20 years after the original Trainspotting, T2 reunites us with everyone's favorite heroin addicts- Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor), "Sick Boy" Simon (Jonny Lee Miller), Spud (Ewen Bremner), and Francis Begbie (Robert Carlyle). At the end of the original, the friends did a deal to sell an expensive brick of heroin for 16,000 pounds, split evenly between the four of them. However, Renton had other plans- he took all 16,000 and left for Amsterdam, deciding to get clean once and for all. He left 4,000 pounds for Spud, but ditched Simon and Begbie. As the film begins, Renton learns that he has a fatal heart condition, one that will take his life in the next 30 years. In the middle of a personal crisis, he decides to return home to Edinburgh, Scotland, meeting with old friends he hasn't seen in nearly two decades.
Renton managed to put together the pieces of his life, but for his fellow addicts, it wasn't so easy. Begbie has been imprisoned for the entirety of Renton's absence, finally creating a plan to escape and return to his life of crime. Despite a caring wife and a young son, Spud has never been able to kick his heroin addiction, and when Renton finds him, he's in the middle of a suicide attempt with a plastic bag over his head. Meanwhile, Simon has switched from heroin to cocaine, using his talents to blackmail powerful figures with his prostitute girlfriend Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova). At first, Simon and Spud aren't happy to see Mark return. But as the friends begin to devise a scheme to recreate their glory days, the friends will have to come to terms with the events of their life, accept the impact of their actions, and hope for a better future. Faced with a midlife crisis, these recovering addicts will have to choose life.
T2 Trainspotting is the very definition of a mixed bag. For every invigorating, sobering scene, there's a plot thread that feels totally superfluous to the story that Boyle is trying to tell. The original film wasn't driven by its story either, and I truly don't mind films that aren't driven by a clean, cohesive narrative. Character-driven films are just as effective, but the difficult thing about T2 is that it too often gets caught up in convoluted story mechanics to really focus on what works. Boyle has a tremendous cast of actors who know these characters like the back of their hand- so why try to do so much? Trainspotting doesn't need to be about two characters working to open a brothel, or fighting to see who gets the lion's share of 100,000 pounds, or even about a complex web of betrayal and revenge. Essentially, T2 works best when it focuses on these characters reuniting and exploring the aftermath and the lingering effects of addiction.
Boyle clearly has a lot that he wants to say with this belated follow-up, and he packs it all in during the course of a 117 minute runtime that is over 20 minutes longer than the 1996 film. That length is somewhat to the detriment of the sequel, as Boyle loses much of the laser-focused energy that made the original Trainspotting work so well. T2 shouldn't be as hectic and madcap as the original- after all, this is a much more reflective, tragic piece of work. The fun is over, but the effects are still there. Boyle wants to show the four former heroin addicts coming back together, reflecting, feeling nostalgic, and then going on a whole new wacky adventure. Individual scenes work like a charm, but there's a sprawling feel to T2 that gets tiresome after a while. This is a "legacyquel" in the purest sense of the term, and Boyle knocks that stuff out of the park. There are some really moving, intensely felt stretches here, and the commentary on modern society is as incisive as it was in 1996. But there's no question in my mind that Boyle bit off more than he could chew, and the result is something less than stellar.
Nonetheless, whenever things go off the rails with the script (which was written by John Hodge), the outstanding cast is always there to pick up the slack. It's a tad too convenient that all four of the addicts are found at different stages in their recovery, but I know that's necessary to tell a story. Ewan McGregor's Renton, once a free spirit of uncontrollable energy, has settled down quite a bit, living a modern, domesticated life in Amsterdam. But when his new life hits a brick wall, Renton finds himself longing for the glory days of the 90s. McGregor plays Renton as a quiet, caring adult, but when he captures that fierce energy that defined his performance in the original, it's nothing short of magical. Jonny Lee Miller also re-captures the sympathetic kindness under the despicable shell of Sick Boy, while Robert Carlyle's Begbie is even more detestable and frightening than he was before. But for me, the strongest performance comes from Ewen Bremner- Spud just can't shake his addiction, and there's real pain, tragedy, and beauty in his performance. Seeing these four together on screen is truly magnificent, and they carry the movie through its roughest stretches.
And while Boyle's storytelling control is somewhat lacking during this ambitious sequel, his filmmaking abilities are as incredible as ever. T2 pulses with a vibrant energy that is often intoxicating, with certain scenes standing as some of my favorites of the year so far. A setpiece in a bar with Renton and Simon manages to capture the thrill of their former life of crime, and it's gleefully funny and delightfully absurd in equal measure. But for every moment of fun, there's a thoughtful meditation on life, addiction, and everything in between. The use of music is sensational, and the editing is once again top notch. Boyle relies a bit too much on nostalgia for the original for my liking, but at the same time, there's something unique about exploring the lives of characters in a classic drama many years after the fact. Sequels are a dime a dozen in Hollywood these days, and we probably didn't need to catch up with the Trainspotting gang in 2017. But there's fun to be had here, and Boyle has crafted something that comes from a place of genuine artistry and heart.
T2 Trainspotting will be a must-see for anyone who considers the original to be an important piece of work, but for everyone else, the long-awaited sequel will probably be viewed with a collective shrug. It's strange, energetic, and harrowing, but it's also incredibly messy, and that messiness drags the film down at times. McGregor, Bremner, Miller, and Carlyle sink back into their roles with ease, and Boyle has a fun time recapturing the spirit of the film that defined his career. But while T2 has its moments of glorious nostalgia and emotional intensity, I can't help but feel that a more succinct, measured approach would have been more successful. Boyle shoots for the skies, and while it all mostly comes together in the end, T2 Trainspotting can often feel like a meandering, scattershot journey. It's great to be back, but in a way, this film simply overstays its welcome.
THE FINAL GRADE: B- (6.9/10)
Images courtesy of Sony