T2 Trainspotting review: “a slightly surreal, melancholy comedown off that initial high”

Choose… a sequel. Danny Boyle picks up the story 20 years on, as Ewan McGregor's prodigal junkie returns to face the music

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★★★

The original Trainspotting was a classic, not least because it captured a moment in time when Britain was riding a wave of mid-1990s optimism. 

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In that context, Ewan McGregor’s directive to “Choose life. Choose a job…” seemed feasible, and in vivid contrast to his character Renton’s life of drugs and grime.

Two decades on, with high unemployment and a general air of depression about the place, his spirit of defiance doesn’t belong to the counterculture anymore. Renton (McGregor looking a little more creased) is off drugs, no longer on the fringes of society but part of a mainstream malaise. If the first film was a wildly invigorating shot in the arm, its long-gestating sequel is mellowed out, resigned to the way things are.

It’s a bold change of pace for returning director Danny Boyle. While there are plenty of his trademark visual flourishes, they amount to a slightly surreal, melancholy comedown off that initial high. The mad gleam in McGregor’s eye is poignantly dulled to a misty-eyed sheen.

Still, the dry humour that stems from Irvine Welsh’s novels (this one loosely based on Porno) remains a vital element – arguably, even more so here – with a couple of laugh-out-loud moments. Like the first time around, Renton is introduced on the run, only this time he’s on a treadmill – going nowhere. There’s a slapstick punchline to the scene that speaks volumes about his current mental state.

He heads back to Edinburgh after the life he chose clearly hit a dead end, but he risks the wrath of his old junkie pals (the main cast all reprise their roles here) after making off with the swag from a drugs deal at the end of the first film. 

Jonny Lee Miler’s manic Sick Boy is the first in line to clock him and hapless Spud (Ewen Bremner) somehow musters the energy as well after a clumsy suicide attempt. Meanwhile, the psychotic Begbie (Robert Carlyle) is out of prison, looking to settle the score.

Don’t expect too much plot. That’s merely a background feature in a film content to just hang out and rake over the good (or bad?) old days. Sick Boy persuades Renton to help him raise the money for a new business venture, a “sauna” to be fronted by his Eastern European girlfriend Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova), who otherwise helps him blackmail VIPs in honey traps. But they get bigger kicks ripping off wallets and tearing down the street like they used to.

Boyle punctuates these more dynamic, blood-rush moments with nearly still frames that echo key scenes from the original film, like Renton’s shark-like grin over the bonnet of a car. Other flashbacks go even further back, with Super 8 snippets of the lads as children. Even Begbie indulges in a reverie (Carlyle finds new depths to the character) when he drops in on Spud and finds scraps of a memoir he’s writing.

Sick Boy, despite being the least evolved of the gang, chastises Renton for living in the past and Veronika makes the point, too, that in her country, people don’t like to think about what went before. Boyle, again working from a script by John Hodge, also lays himself open to accusations of wallowing too much in nostalgia but the characters are so familiar, so well-drawn (at least the males  anyway) that their collective midlife crises stir up real feeling and drama.

Even the soundtrack is retrospective to match the tone of bittersweet melancholy, using remixed, slightly slowed down versions of familiar tunes (Born Slippy by Underworld) along with teasing little blasts of the main theme, Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life, popping up throughout the film.

If Renton is too busy looking back, it’s because he feels there is nothing to look forward to, and he impishly riffs on an old rant to underscore that: “Choose a zero hours contract and a two hour commute to work… Choose Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat… Post a picture of what you had for breakfast and hope somebody cares.”  

That speech aside, T2 doesn’t quite tap the zeitgeist in the same way as the first film, but what it does do is find the heart in a bunch of characters who were once defined by not caring – so hopped up on skag they would rip offer their own mams. Early on, Renton hugs his bereaved father (James Cosmo) to put his misspent youth in perspective, but there’s still enough cheek and pointed wit here to get under your skin.  

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T2 Trainspotting is in cinemas on Friday 27 January