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T2 Trainspotting

Typically, there’s a statute of limitations when it comes to sequels. After a decade or so, the chances of actually producing a follow-up get increasingly slim, and the chances of that finished product yielding anything worthwhile are even slimmer. The reverse is also true, of course — too little time between movies can result in a rushed piece of crap just as an overly delayed sequel can fail to recapture magic that’s long since past.

But every rule has an exception. Which brings us to T2 Trainspotting.

For those who don’t recall, the film’s predecessor ended in 1996 with a massive shipment of dope getting sold off by four motley heroin addicts. One of them (Renton, played by Ewan McGregor) stole the proceeds of that sale, leaving only enough money for Spud (the well-meaning but dim-witted runt of the litter, played by Ewen Bremmer) to secretly collect his share.

So where is everyone at twenty years later?

Well, Renton went sober and took off to seek his fortune in Amsterdam. Unfortunately, his life has been steadily falling apart, culminating in a near heart attack. So Renton goes back to the only other home he’s known, to see if anything good might possibly be waiting for him back in Edinburgh. He’s hoping on twenty years of water under the bridge to wash away every awful thing he’s ever done in that town.

Instead, he finds that while his family has been dying off, his old friends are still pissed about all the money that he stole from them.

For example, there’s “Sick Boy” Simon, played once again by Johnny Lee Miller. In the intervening years, he’s taken to running an old pub — inherited from his aunt — while running a blackmail scheme on the side. Also, he’s switched from his heroin addiction to cocaine.

The main thrust of the plot is that Simon wants to repurpose the pub into a brothel “sauna” and he needs help raising the necessary cash. So he brings Renton in on the action with the intention of screwing him over at the first opportunity.

Helping out in this venture is none other than Spud. After blowing his share of the dope sale on more heroin, Spud hit rock bottom and made an effort to go straight. Unfortunately, Spud quickly lost his construction job, as well as his wife and son, and quickly fell back into heroin. In an effort at putting his life back together, Spud is brought in to put his construction skills toward remodeling the pub.

Of course, trouble arrives in the form of “Begbie” Franco (a returning Robert Carlyle), who’s spent the past twenty years in prison with no sign of when or if he’s ever getting out. Until he manages to escape. Franco makes a beeline to his old home and finds that he now has a son (Frank Jr., played by Scot Greenan) enrolled in college for hotel management. Franco brushes that aside to pressgang his son into starting a career in crime.

Basically, Franco spends pretty much the entire movie proving exactly why he should be rotting the rest of his life away in prison. Naturally, this leads all of us in the audience to wait for the fireworks when he inevitably finds out that Renton is back in town.

We do get some other returning players. Kelly Macdonald pokes her head in for a scene, just long enough to show that Diane has done surprisingly well for herself. The great James Cosmo gets a sweet little cameo, reprising his part as Renton’s father. Shirley Henderson returns as Gail, now the estranged mother of Spud’s son.

But aside from our four main players, easily the most pivotal character is a new one. Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova) is a Bulgarian immigrant who works as a prostitute. Simon claims her as his girlfriend, though she talks of him as a partner in business — she’s his accomplice in the blackmail scheme, and also the prospective madam of the bordello they’re building together. But as allegiances shift, shit goes sour, and Veronika starts getting attached to Renton, there’s the constant question of what she’s going to do and where she’ll be standing when the dust has cleared. Understand, it’s not like she’s your typical manipulative heartbreaking bitch; she’s just an unskilled immigrant looking for the best way to get ahead, trying to figure out who would be in the best position to help her at any given time.

(Side note: It’s interesting how the female characters are the ones who go through the most change and act like legitimate grown-ups, as opposed to the man-babies in the male cast.)

All of our characters are in precarious spots. Our four male leads have known each other for decades, but they’ve screwed each other over so many times and so thoroughly proven themselves to be criminal bastards that there’s no telling what they’ll do, how far they’ll trust each other, or what lengths they’ll go to to kill each other. Veronika is a part of that dynamic, but she changes things up in that she doesn’t have so many years of shared history like her costars do. Moreover, because she’s a gorgeous young woman, that comes with certain strengths and drawbacks that the male leads don’t have. Not only does this make her an intriguing wild card for the plot, but her relatively short history with these people makes her a fine sounding board for all the madness they attract.

That said, there is a degree of complexity in every character. Even Franco gets a sweet little moment with his son to show that he’s not a complete shitstain. There are times when the characters at least partially redeem themselves, which gives us just enough audience sympathy to be getting on with. And when the characters choose to do something awful, they either get their comeuppance in short order or they do it at the expense of someone even more despicable. This on top of the characters’ inherently mercurial nature, and we’re always kept guessing as to who will do what. We only know the result won’t be boring. It makes for some truly gripping cinema.

Given the source material, it should come as no surprise that drugs and drug addiction are both prominent in the story. But more importantly, this is still a story about disaffected people living on the fringes of society, outside the neon drudgery of modern life. A key example in the sequel concerns a group of old white people with more money than sense, still claiming their superior heritage over some stupid conflict from 300 years ago. For obvious reasons, this could not be more relevant in the ’10s. Additionally, the old “Choose Life” catchphrase is updated for the 21st century in a showstopping monologue from McGregor. But perhaps most importantly, the centerpiece of the plot is an old bar that nobody cares about, and the effort to turn it into something (however questionable) that will attract new customers.

Nostalgia is a huge factor here, as these characters are seemingly trapped by their past. In fact, given how they’d rather continue living in the past rather than face the difficulties of the future, it might be fair to say that they’re addicted to the past. There’s the very real question of whether these characters can kick their old habits and addictions, especially since they’ve remained mostly unchanged in spite of (or perhaps because of) their failed marriages and estranged children. Moreover, these characters have all the more reason to be stuck chasing after the glory days of their pasts: Middle age is upon them, they’ve done nothing with their lives, and they’ve got nothing to do but piss around for another few decades before they finally die. As Renton himself so eloquently puts it, “I’m 46 and I’m fucked!”

The nostalgia point is further hit home by all the myriad flashbacks and callbacks to the previous film. And I mean, there are A LOT of flashbacks and callbacks in this picture. Don’t get me wrong, a few references are going to come up with any good sequel, especially a sequel as obsessed with the past as this one. Plus, given that the previous film is over twenty years old, the callbacks serve as a neat recap for those who’ve never seen the first film or haven’t seen it in a while. Even so, when it feels like the young Ewan McGregor gets just as much screen time as the modern-day Ewan McGregor, maybe the flashbacks have gone a little too far.

That said, this is still an absolutely gorgeous picture. Edinburgh offers a wide variety of settings, and Danny Boyle seems to show us every one of them in dazzling detail and with highly creative camerawork. I’m also very fond of the onscreen graphics that beautifully illustrate what’s happening on the screen. This is particularly useful early on, as subtitles clarify the dialogue until we can get used to the thick Scottish accents.

Then we have the soundtrack choices, which are beautifully on point from start to finish. It’s remarkable how the film uses so many different great songs from so many different eras, somehow mixing them together in a way that feels perfect. Oh, and of course “Lust for Life” is brought back, utilized in a strategic manner for maximum impact.

T2 Trainspotting is a wonderful piece of work. The performances are all riveting, the characters are a ton of fun, and there’s more than enough humor and heart to go around. The visuals are dazzling from start to finish, and the soundtrack is incredible. It’s not a game-changer like the original film was, but that was never an option. It’s still a solid film in its own right that also serves as a worthy sequel to the original, which is far more than most other sequels can say after so long a gap between films.

This one is absolutely recommended.

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