When Trainspotting was released in early 1996, it brought the whirlwind of Cool Britannia to an apex, its combination of energy, rawness and style elbowing its way into British cinema history to stand alongside so many period pieces and mockney gangsters. Alongside Blur, The Spice Girls and Tony Blair, Danny Boyle’s drugged masterwork defined mid-to-late 1990s Britain. Its influence is being felt since; Guy Ritchie and Matthew Vaughn’s lurid style may never have got off the ground without it, and numerous imitators came in the years that followed. As if to prove the film’s lasting influence, however, along comes the awkwardly-titled T2 Trainspotting, a belated sequel that never manages to step out of its predecessor’s shadow. Instead, it forces a few contemporary barbs onto scenes that restage the most iconic parts of the original and forgets to put anything of much note in between.
The original film started with running, and so must the sequel. Twenty years on, Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) is on a treadmill, looking to escape love handles instead of security guards. Still, his improved circumstances can’t prevent a sudden urge to return to Edinburgh. If T2 Trainspotting is about anything, it’s about this decade’s drug of choice, nostalgia. Though loosely adapted from Porno, Irvine Welsh’s sequel to the original novel, screenwriter John Hodge and Boyle are far less interested in progressing the character’s stories than looking at them through a hazy nostalgic lens. At one point, Jonny Lee Miller’s Sick Boy declares to Renton, “You’re a tourist in your own youth.” To be fair, while Edinburgh has changed a lot in twenty years, the main characters haven’t. Sick Boy’s still a shyster, now dabbling in blackmail and prostitution while running a run-down pub. Meanwhile, Spud (Ewen Bremner) is barely staying on the wagon, and the ever-psychotic Begbie (Robert Carlyle) is about to leave prison, albeit on his schedule. With all these elements hurtling towards each other, expect violence and reminiscing.
Renton’s arrival back in Edinburgh spells an opportunity for his erstwhile pals, partly for new enterprises, but mostly for revenge after his betrayal at the end of the first film. T2 Trainspotting is forever dragging back and forth between past and present, unsure of which to pay the greater lip service. This is epitomised when Renton delivers a remix of the ‘Choose life’ monologue, but this time with references to social media and reality TV. It’s the filmed equivalent of an ageing uncle trotting out slang to impress his nieces and nephews, and is about as effective. He delivers the monologue to Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova), Sick Boy’s prospective madame for his new brothel. She’s nowhere near as interesting as either Shirley Henderson or Kelly MacDonald were in the first film (and who both get cameos, and little more), but then the film’s main concern is the main foursome. There is something to be said for seeing how these characters have aged, and having the four actors back does help anchor proceedings. What it can’t do is counter the film’s lack of forward momentum. Plots about Begbie’s family or Renton’s new family are of little consequence when they can’t be readily related to what came before.
Even as all the characters try to negotiate their own lives, T2 Trainspotting is constantly dragging them back to scenes and situations of old. There are familiar sights to see, and old music cues next to new ones (Brian Eno and Iggy Pop sit alongside the likes of the Rubberbandits on the soundtrack). The film gets so enamoured with its own past that it even gets a little postmodern when a writing project of Spud’s begins with the words “The sweat wis lashing oafay Sick Boy…”. Still, clever as this might seem in the moment, it’s another reminder that T2 Trainspotting is a film in thrall to its past to the detriment of its future. In one scene, and despite having expressed no desire to do so up to this point, Renton and Sick Boy inject heroin. For old times’ sake, y’know? ‘Cause what’s a Trainspotting film without heroin. Original ideas come in dribs and drabs (One can’t help but imagine the gut-busting scene with drunken Scottish royalists could have been inserted as a response to Brexit), and the efforts of DoP Anthony Dod Mantle to inject Edinburgh’s grimmest corners with his and Boyle’s glassy colour palette are appreciated. For the most part, though, T2 Trainspotting feels like Sick Boy’s efforts to do up his pub. All the gentrification funds you can muster can’t cover up the fact that this structure is lacking the spark that made the original so memorable.