When Richard Linklater made Before Sunset in 2004, you would never have guessed that nine years earlier he didn’t already have in place a plan to revisit the main characters of Before Sunrise. That’s how well its sequels (Before Midnight joined its predecessors in 2013) expand on their foundation, playing off ideas about the past, the passage of time, and aging.

Trainspotting is far more compelling as a stand-alone film than Before Sunrise and didn’t cry out for a sequel any more than A Clockwork Orange (to which it owes quite a debt). Nonetheless, with T2 Trainspotting, which catches up with Renton and his so-called mates 20 years after we met them in what now is probably destined to be called “Trainspotting 1” (and from here on out I’ll call “T1”), Danny Boyle has his conjured his own Before-style trick. And whether or not it will be a good idea to conjure his quartet of Scottish lads as senior citizens, it was a great one to meet up with them as middle-aged men.

When last we left our antihero Renton (Ewan McGregor), it was 1996, and he had just tiptoed out the door with £16,000 (this is pre-Euro) that he and Begbie (Robert Carlyle), Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), and Spud (Ewen Bremner) had obtained from a drug deal. Twenty years later Bigby’s in prison (big surprise), Simon (née Sick Boy) is running a tavern and a tiny criminal enterprise that range from drug-dealing to blackmail, and poor Spud—still a heroin addict—has screwed up his relationship with Gail (Shirley Henderson, also reprising her role from the original) and their adult son.

But we open on Renton, reversing the blur of T1‘s penultimate shot to bring his younger self back into focus. He had ironically promised that he was going to “choose life” and become just like one of us, and it seems that’s just what he’s done. He’s off the skag and living in Amsterdam with the job, the wife, the kids. Why he’s visiting Edinburgh we don’t quite know, but he tracks down Spud just in time to foil the latter’s suicide attempt and re-engage him in life, then finds Simon to belatedly pay him share of the drug money. This better-late-than-never gesture doesn’t slake constantly coked-up Simon’s thirst for revenge, and Simon hatches a half-baked plan to ensnare Renton in business venture and thereby ruin him. When Renton doesn’t buy in and is heading off the isle, it seems like that is that, but at the last minute he confesses that his job is being outsourced, his wife has kicked him out, and his wee bairns don’t exist at all. Turns out choosing life has been shite, a truth that really hit home for him when a heart condition was remedied with a medical implant that his doctor told him should keep him going for the next 30 years. What the fuck is he supposed to do with 30 years? Simon’s idea is better than any Renton has, a change of heart that thaws Simon’s feelings enough so that they pair up in earnest to scam the City of Edinburgh out of 100,000 Euros’ worth of gentrification money to build a high-end brothel to be run by Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova), Simon’s quasi-girlfriend. Once they bring in Spud to help with the interior design and Begbie escapes from prison, the band’s more or less back together—although Begbie has no interest in playing nice.

Boyle is smart enough to know that you’ve come to see T2 because you want it to be like T1—the color, the flash, the set pieces, the soundtrack—and on that score T2 is a great achievement. It’s not as funny as the original, but it’s just about as fun. Boyle reuses many shots from the original (the injection of heroin from the inside of a syringe, the opening chase sequence) and restages many others (a finger on a doorbell; the elongation of Renton’s childhood bedroom; Renton at the dinner table with his dad, his dead mother’s shadow projected onto the wallpaper near her former place like the burnt afterimage of a vaporized Hiroshiman). All of this is certainly nostalgic (an issue that screenwriter John Hodges smartly confronts head-on), but not merely so. Rather, T2 is all about how the past informs—and sometimes imprisons—the present. The film’s central conflict is how to escape one’s own past enough to make it into the future—to really make it, soul alive and intact. As someone says in this one (it’s hard to keep track of who’s philosophizing at any given moment), “The world changes even if we don’t”—an echo of what Diane (Kelly MacDonald) was already telling Renton 20 years ago: “The world’s changing. You have to find something new.”

As with T1, T2 has more plot points per minute than most any film you’ll see. But also as with T1, not all those points quite cohere, leaving the story seeming a bit dodgy and with a climax that goes over the top. There are also some character problems. Begbie is just as not-quite-believable as he was in T1, but with the addition of a hollow, 11th-hour attempt to humanize him. Then there’s Boyle’s curious shift of focus. T1 was Renton’s film; he is our access point into the Trainspotting universe. But although T2 starts sure-footedly in this direction, during the last half-hour it founders in favor of Spud, taking a meta turn that might seem stale even if you didn’t see it coming miles away.

None of this is surprising. Even Boyle’s best films—and T2 is absolutely one of his best—are flawed (with the possible exception of Steve Jobs, perhaps because Boyle was comfortable staying well within himself to shoot Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant but cinematically simple screenplay). Even when it comes to style, Boyle—a great stylist, to be sure—is unable to sweep you up in such a way that you forget all the fancy directorial tricks he’s using; instead, his work always show at the seams.

But the sum total of T2‘s failings detracts very little from the fun. If anything, T2 is probably more of a stylistic delight than T1 (and that’s saying something), not only because two decades on Boyle is more of a sure hand and has better tech at his disposal, but also because he’s got T1 to play against. For every original visual delight (a train passing just outside a mirrored room of the half-built brothel is pure magic), there’s a clever callback to the old days (T1‘s opening chase with new angles and contemporary bells and whistles). For every perfect new piece of music (Young Fathers do yeoman’s work), there’s something perfectly familiar (great remixes of “Born Slippy” and “Lust for Life”).

The best bits in the screenplay also play against T1. “What is ‘Choose life?'” Veronika asks. “Simon says it all the time.” Yes, it’s a contrived set-up (you can’t escape contrivance in T2), but Renton’s explanation and an up-to-date example is both clever and touching. Boyle got a great take from McGregor, and it may be the film’s most poignant moment, just as the funniest might be a half-second in which Renton tries to listen to an old Iggy Pop vinyl record on his childhood hi-fi when he’s not yet in the right state of mind to concoct his own a healthy mix past and present.

You would have to be a cinematic sourpuss not to find at least some fun in T2 Trainspotting. But if you happen to be one of the many who truly love Trainspotting, this is the sequel you didn’t know you were waiting for. First I’d re-see T1 (which was more enjoyable than I even remembered), because the more present T1 is to you, the bigger T2‘s payoff.

T2 Trainspotting is now playing at the Art Theatre of Long Beach (2025 E. 4th Street, LB 90804). SHOWTIMES: 1:30pm, 4pm, 6:30pm, 9pm. For more info call 562.438.5435 or visit arttheatrelongbeach.com.

 

 

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