Well, this is a surprise.
I’m alone in an overpriced Manhattan theater. I’m about one act into Danny Boyle’s miracle-sequel T2 Trainspotting. Resplendent and fast on the screen come those trademark quick cuts; bizarre yet strangely cohesive collections of urban landscapes, floral close-ups, highlight reels from ‘70s footballers, and Boyle’s well-trodden abstract superimposition. The montage is prompted by Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) and Simon “Sick Boy” Williamson (Jonny Lee Miller) pulling off their first scam together in twenty years. They, along with newcomer Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkolva), retire to Simon’s unaffordable apartment for a night of cocaine, cheap vodka, and drunken nostalgia. The scene mostly consists of 40-somethings Renton and Sick Boy (now just ‘Mark’ and ‘Simon’) attempting to convey to 20-something Veronika just how much better things used to be back when footballers wore short-shorts and McDonald’s had not yet scurried across the pond to the U.K’s virgin shores. Look how fucking thin everyone is! Mark shouts, gesturing insouciantly at the outrageous flat-screen behind him, upon which plays a jabbering mix of football footage and IRA protests. The montage concludes with a shamelessly ejaculatory shot of Mark and Simon knee-sliding down a soccer pitch – seemingly transposed into the confines of Simon’s apartment – while rain drenches their gift-shop jerseys and the camera pulls up to reveal the walls and furniture in the apartment are in fact sitting casually mid-field in Edinburgh’s Murrayfield Stadium. And I’m smiling the whole damn time.
It should be hackneyed at this point. How many more times do prolific 21st century directors have to make movies about the throes of middle age before the 30-something ruling class of studio filmmaking tells them to sit their asses down and make way for Denis Villeneuve to direct another movie about isolationism? But, strangely enough, the mid-life ennui of T2 Trainspotting works. It never quite matches the vibrant thrill and deeply entrenched black irony of the first, but it also never aspires to do so. T2 instead captures the essence of a quality most middle-aged folks consider unattainable: self-awareness.
I believe I went into T2 under the perfect circumstances. I saw Trainspotting (1996) only once about three years ago, in my dimly lit wood-panelled bedroom during some sophomore-year college break. I remembered just enough of the first one to recognize all of the characters, retain a familiarity with the plot, and not be utterly confused by the many callbacks T2 has to offer. Under these conditions, T2 works on a ‘flow zone’ sort of level. As the characters re-engage with their old relationships and attempt to figure out their new dynamic, they remember the events of the first film. More often than not, the audience is given an actual shot from Trainspotting to help bridge the memory, but even when no visual cue is offered, the callbacks are transparent and honest. And given my casual recollection of the first, I found myself remembering as the characters did. This makes for some truly impactful filmmaking.
Danny Boyle is back in his element here. After a series of unforgivable missteps (*cough* Steve Jobs (2015) *cough*), he excels in familiar ken. Back in the U.K, working with the same frenetic editing style to which younger masters like Edgar Wright owe their success, and with the same black-comedic tone with which Boyle himself found fame, the director clearly treats T2 as a redemption story for his career… although the film itself is about as far from redemption as you could imagine.
Boyle has never attempted to disguise the influence of Terry Gilliam on his work, and expect plenty of Dutch-angles, interior framing, wide-angled close-ups, and plaintive wides. Anthony Dod Mantle, who worked with Boyle on 28 Days Later… (2002) and (weirdly) with Harmony Korine on Julien Donkey-Boy (1999), is behind the camera this time around. I was uncertain as to why Brian Tufano, who shot the original Trainspotting, didn’t return for the sequel, until I realized he’s pushing 80 and likely couldn’t be bothered. Nonetheless, Mantle respects the precedent set by Tufano’s work while never attempting to encroach upon it. Other than the montage mentioned above, there are no scenes that even come close to the eye-bending cinematography of the first. This is not criticism. There is little motivation for a visual style as urgent as the drug-induced Dadaist assemblage from Trainspotting… mostly because there aren’t as many drugs in T2. The story does not ask for it and the visual language does not impose it. This is a welcome relief from the style-over-substance filmmaking most modern auteurs Boyle’s age employ, i.e. David Fincher shoving his bruise-colored patina in your face throughout all of Gone Girl (2014).
That said, some shots in T2 Trainspotting are sure to be featured in ‘Top Shots of 2017’ montages come the end of the calendar year. [MINOR SPOILER] When Mark Renton returns home for the first time in twenty years, he and his father (James Cosmo) sit at their breakfast table. The frame matches perfectly with a shot from the original, which we do eventually see in a flashback. Mark back-faces the camera and his father is shown in profile against the neutral-pallor of the wall. To their right, sitting directly opposite Mark’s father, is a shadow. The way the light enters the room implies the shadow belongs to Mark, cast from a window somewhere off to his left. But the shadow quite obviously bears resemblance to his mother; it’s in the shape of a woman, hands wrapped around a cup of tea. No one ever says that she has died. All we are given is this shot [/END SPOILER]. And it’s more than enough.
Perhaps that’s an accurate description of T2. “More than enough.” This sequel should not even exist. Between the two-decade gap, the veritable blood-feud between McGregor and Boyle, the relative unpopularity of the original, and the difficult-to-digest subject matter (heroin addiction does not make for comfortable filmmaking), it’s a wonder Irvine Welsh’s second novel in the Porno series was given an adaptation at all. But, as inexplicably as the survival of its leading addicts, T2 Trainspotting not only manages to exist, but somehow succeed.
The film unabashedly capitalizes off the memory of its predecessor. Most of the climactic, stirring bits are cut with clips from the original. Certain scenes featuring obvious callbacks, such as a lingering tracking shot past a filthy toilet and a medium shot of Mark Renton laughing his wide-mouthed Ewan McGregor ‘guffaw’ through a car’s windshield, work on a purely nostalgic level. Half of my smiles watching T2 were prompted by these ‘wink-at-the-camera’ moments. The fatal flaw here is that, unlike the original, T2 offers little in the way of black satire and social commentary. The heroin-addled snapshots of late ‘90s Scotland provided a glimpse into the weight of urban poverty and the emergence of a brand new ‘Lost Generation’ in the U.K; not stunted by war but by hard drugs. Trapped beneath the confines of reverie and nostalgia, T2 is far less present than Trainspotting.
This, however, seems to be the point. T2 is not so much a charged, youthful, politically relevant satire as it is a character study. If Trainspotting is the set-up then here is the pay-off. Twenty years after their crimes, the brashness and stupidity of youth is reckoned by the men who committed these felonies, not by the society that enabled them. T2 is a character thriller at its heart. It grapples with the long-term consequences of addiction in a way few other films can, partially because of the sheer amount of real-world time passed. The consequences of Mark Renton’s actions in the first film are the focus of the main plot from the get-go, and the fate of all four men – Mark, Simon, Spud (Ewen Bremner) and Frank Begbie (Robert Carlyle) – is the expectant resolution of the story.
T2 never quite manages to expand upon the original in the same way as its namesake, Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), but like Cameron’s sequel it offers a different perspective on a familiar story. Spud repeats the mantra of T2 multiple times before the film’s conclusion: “First, there is an opportunity. Then, there is a betrayal.” If you’ve seen the first Trainspotting, that likely rings a bell, but again, this brings us back to the commendable self-awareness of the film. T2 knows it’s about a group of middle-aged men reliving a plot from their 20s. The main characters of T2 know they’re a group of middle-aged men reliving a plot from their 20s. They poke fun at it, they marvel at the incredulity of it, but ultimately, they are still at the whim of it. No matter how ludicrous it seems, this situation is life and death for them. And there’s something intrinsically Welshian about that sentiment. To quote another Irvine Welsh novel, Filth, “same rules apply.”
The best scene in Trainspotting comes when Mark is having dinner with Veronika and she asks him to explain to her, “Choose life.” Mark describes it as a misguided lyric from a 1980s anti-drug anthem that the boys co-opted for their own anti-establishment ethos. Mark launches into the rhythmic repetition of the mantra, a la Trainspotting, conducting an artful and poetic takedown of society’s modern ills. Replacing designer handbags and big TV’s with Facebook and Twitter, Mark gives us just about the only 2010s update the film has to offer. But after concluding his rant, Mark chuckles to himself at how stupid he just sounded. He lifts his wine glass and says, “It amused us at the time.”
Choose life. It amused us at the time. If there’s a better way to describe middle age, even fucking Charlie Kaufman hasn’t thought of it yet.