“So we all get old and then we can’t hack it anymore? Is that it?”
--Mark Renton, “Trainspotting”
“You’re a tourist in your own youth.”
--Simon aka “Sick Boy,” “Trainspotting 2”
File “Trainspotting 2” under Sequels We Never Thought We’d See. (Not to be confused with Sequels Nobody Wanted; e.g., “xXx: Return of Xander Cage.”)
“Trainspotting” from 1996, which followed a rough group of Scottish heroin addicts/thieves, launched star Ewan McGregor and director Danny Boyle, who have both gone on to major movie careers. Serious, Oscar-winning filmmakers tend to shy away from sequels because they’re seen as a generally unworthy endeavor.
But Boyle has long expressed interest in a sequel, though it took a while to round up the old gang. And it turns out that Irvine Welsh, the author of the book upon which the first movie was based, penned a follow-up novel that revisited the characters about 10 years later.
“Trainspotting 2” takes us even further out to 20 years. Our young anti-heroes -- Mark Renton (McGregor), Simon “Sick Boy” Williamson (Jonny Lee Miller), Danny “Spud” Murphy (Ewen Bremner) and Francis Begbie (Robert Caryle) -- are now middle-aged schlumps struggling to get on with meaningful lives.
The story (screenplay by John Hodge) brings the quartet back together to address old grudges, work out their individual disappointments and dream up some new schemes. It borrows heavily from the first movie, from particular shots to musical cues, including a reversal of the famous ending scene where Renton walks toward the camera with a cynical admonishment to “Choose life,” having just ripped off his mates following a big drug score.
I’ve seen the movie and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. Certainly, I liked it. Almost equally as certain, I don’t think it needed to be made.
Watching it is not unlike the experience of an estranged friend showing up on your doorstep after a long absence, a meeting filled with awkward pauses and mumbled apologies. When they leave a part of you is glad to have seen them again, while the other part wonders if some things are better left unsaid, some mysteries savored for remaining just so.
Renton has been living in Amsterdam working a straight job in accounting. He returns to Edinburgh after a couple of life-changing experiences, and to look up his old chums and see if forgiveness is a possibility. He finds Spud clean (albeit temporarily) but out of work, estranged from his wife and son.
A truly gentle soul, who seems to have gotten even more bird-like with the passing of years and the thinning of his plume-like shock of hair, Spud stands a bit apart from the story and acts as our eyes and ears.
Sick Boy is still addicted, though shifted to a more upscale cocaine habit. He runs his family’s run-down old pub, and has a side business setting up his prostitute girlfriend, Veronica (Anjela Nedyalkova), with well-to-do customers so he can film the antics and then blackmail them.
His reunion with Renton is less amicable than Spud’s, at least initially. Soon they’re back in cahoots, reminiscing about old times, running new scams and seeing who can be the first to betray the other.
Even less amenable is Begbie, the truly terrifying psychopath who seems to enjoy hurting others for its own sake. He’s been languishing in prison this whole time, and has Renton’s name on his lips in an unceasing litany for revenge. We know things are going to end grimy and bloody.
“Trainspotting” was an edgy, groundbreaking film because it provided us a funny, caustic window into the lowest dregs of society, then turned that glass around into a mirror that asked if everyday lives were really that much better. “Trainspotting 2” underlines many of the same themes without adding any meaningful postscript.