The track record of long-delayed follow-ups to highly beloved pop culture properties isn’t exactly littered with tons of success stories. Two notable examples of this trend came in 2013, when Arrested Development came back with a narratively ambitious new season that was OK but not quite as successful as its initial seasons while Anchorman 2 reunited Ron Burgundy with his news team for occasionally humorous but mostly just scattered antics. I’d imagine director Danny Boyle knew about this trend going into the making of T2: Trainspotting, a follow-up to the 1996 film Trainspotting, and if he did, he’d likely be happy to know that T2: Trainspotting is a massive departure from that trend in that it’s a worthy follow-up to the original movie.
Instead of just doing a rehash of the original movie that sets all the characters back to their original states like too many of these long-delayed sequels are wont to do, T2: Trainspotting very much keeps in mind that it’s been two decades since the original Trainspotting and allows the passage of time to wear on both the viewer and the characters themselves. In the twenty years since Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) betrayed his friends and made off with loads of loot at the end of the first Trainspotting film, they’ve all been stuck as human beings in unique ways specific to their own individual circumstances.
Mark Renton is feeling unfulfilled and weighed down by health woes, Simon (Jonny Lee Miller) is still out there in the criminal world, though he’s now got a coke addiction and a distant girlfriend, Spud (Ewen Bremner) is feeling like there’s no purpose in his existence due to how much he’s lost (including regular contact with his own wife and child) due to his drug addiction and then there’s Francis Begbie (Robert Carlyle), who got put into the slammer by Mark all those years ago and has now gotten out of prison in the hope of obtaining some gruesome vengeance against Mark. Once Mark Renton returns to his hometown (where the other three characters permanently reside), you can imagine tensions are gonna flare up big time.
That’s basically the plot of T2: Trainspotting, watching these four previously established characters grapple with the very concept of the passage of time and their own increasing mortality. Such an event manifests itself in a tragic way that echoes the way the first Trainspotting movie depicted four of them and their more youthful debauchery as a pain-ridden cycle they refuse to escape. Here, watching Mark relapse into criminal activity with the help of Simon takes on a multitude of heart-rending meanings, mainly in seeing how devoid of meaning his life carries that the only way he can imagine being fulfilled is embarking on the same kind of criminal acts he tried so hard to break out of all those years ago.
These are all four human beings in various states of disarray that the movie never flinches away from depicting in an appropriately sobering manner. Part of examining how lacking their lives have become involves returning to certain locations or story beats of the first movie. Surprisingly, these don’t come off at all like simple “fan service” or anything of that ilk. Instead, a return to Mark Renton’s childhood home involves him discovering familial tragedy while recounting events of the first movie only leads to despair, and not wink-wink nods for the audience, for these lead characters. The past in T2: Trainspotting is not something to be mined for callbacks, but rather, something the lead characters simultaneously revel in and also try to avoid gazing upon too much lest they realize the true depths of the horrors they’ve committed over the years.
For a prime example of this, look at the way Kelly MacDonald’s character Dianne Coulston returns into the Trainspotting universe. She’s not around to be a fling Mark can pick back up again or what have you, she shows up (now in a law-oriented occupation) for a scene where the two awkwardly (in an intentional way) tiptoe around bringing up their past illegal relationship while discussing ways for Simon to avoid jail time for some of his recent antics. There’s only one interaction between the two that calls back to their past and it simply consists of her telling Mark not to fool around with Simon’s girlfriend, Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova). “She’s too young for you Mark” she says to which Mark can only reply by pointing his eyes to the ground and walking away. That’s what I love so much about how this movie handles the lead character’s past, it is not something to be gazed upon through rose-tinted glasses as “the good o’l days”. The past is full of shame and intense regret that the likes of Mark and Spud seem to treat just like they treated criminal activity in the first movie; they realize it’s bad, but they can’t help but revel in it because it offers an extended distraction from their pitiful modern-day existence.
All of this rumination on the past and mortality makes for a gripping atmosphere that screenwriter John Hodge and director Danny Boyle (both of whom reprise the roles they carried on the production side of the original Trainspotting) make fantastic use of. While Hodge’s script sometimes loses track of the characters (Spud vanishes for much of the second act and Mark becomes a bit too passive of a player in the start of the third act), he’s otherwise penned a script full of thoughtfulness that makes great use of the heavy themes he draws upon. Meanwhile, Danny Boyle finds himself right at home returning to the world of Renton and pals and even employs some of the first movies unorthodox camera placement that puts the viewer right in the middle of the action here, though he doles it out in a selective fashion that makes the usage of such specific camerawork all the more effective.
Both of these guys are handling this introspective story magnificently and ditto for the actors participating in the film. Ewan McGregor excels with playing the “smiling-on-the-outside-in-incredible-pain-on-the-inside”-type of persona that Mark Renton lives with while Ewan Bremner is certainly the standout actor of the motion picture in the way he makes Spud such a troubled but heavily endearing individual. The four men playing these lead characters ensure the protagonists come off as feeling very much consistent with their performances from the original Trainspotting while bringing plenty of new elements to the table, a sufficient way to summarize the excellent and introspective T2: Trainspotting as a whole.