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T2 Trainspotting: same characters, fewer drugs, more ennui

But still fun.

Ewen Bremmer, Ewan McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller, and Robert Carlyle in T2 Trainspotting
Ewen Bremmer, Ewan McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller, and Robert Carlyle in T2 Trainspotting
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Twenty-one years have passed since the lads of Trainspotting snorted, injected, and capered their way through Edinburgh, in a film that was at once cautionary and buoyant: Drugs are bad, and they can end your life — but when you’re young and resilient, you’re still pretty sure you’ll live forever. Trainspotting is about junkies and death, but it’s also perversely fun (and I do mean perversely) because it’s infused with the manic expressiveness of youth. Even the terrifying hallucinations of cold-turkey heroin withdrawal are set over a raucous soundtrack.

Compared with its predecessor, T2 Trainspotting (yes, we can all acknowledge that’s a silly name) is less of a romp, but that’s entirely appropriate. Twenty years after the concluding events of Trainspotting, the reckless lads are now all middle-aged men, gone their separate ways, who’ve discovered that life isn’t always a glorious, high-spirited party. Thus, it makes sense that T2 Trainspotting is comparatively subdued, though it still has its high (ahem) moments.

Nearly the whole Trainspotting cast has returned, as well as director Danny Boyle, making T2 a true, if belated, sequel. But whereas Trainspotting was about the ineffable, shatterproof irascibility of a particular slice of ’90s youth culture, T2 is a nod to an emptier middle age, when the temptation to cast a longing eye back to your younger days becomes irresistible.

Two decades after Trainspotting, the lads come back together again in T2. Capers ensue.

T2 picks up 20 years after Mark (Ewan McGregor) took the group’s ill-gotten cash and made a break for it. Spud (Ewen Bremner) is still an addict. Begbie (Robert Carlyle), recently escaped from jail, is out for blood — Mark’s blood. And Simon, née Sick Boy, (Jonny Lee Miller), Mark’s best friend, is in the blackmailing business with Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova), though they’re looking to break into the brothel business. Everyone’s pissed about the money, especially since Mark has gotten clean and had an apparently successful life, with a family and career away from Scotland.

Ewan McGregor and Jonny Lee Miller in T2 Trainspotting
Ewan McGregor and Jonny Lee Miller in T2 Trainspotting

Of course, things are never quite what they seem. Mark’s life is actually falling apart. Simon is still running the bar where Trainspotting’s famous last fight took place, but it’s insanely depressing; when Mark comes to see him there and they lunge at each other to fight, the solitary regular at the bar doesn’t flinch while they throw each other over the bar. Begbie’s son is uninterested in joining him in the family business of thieving and petty crime, and the sum of money Mark left Spud all went to drugs, as has every sum Spud’s had since. Mark finds him trying to strangle himself with a plastic bag.

After Mark and Simon get past their animosity (more or less), they revel in their remembered friendship for a bit, and then rapidly get themselves into a scrape that leads them down some of the same gritty paths of their youth. The difference now is that Edinburgh isn’t half as dingy — one clever bit leaves Simon hollering on the street outside a posh brunch joint, to the dismay of the diners inside — and Europe is changing. (When Mark lands in Scotland, a team of women clad in kitschily iconic Scottish garb greet him and other arriving passengers and hand out maps. He asks one of them where she’s from. “Slovenia,” she says.)

Some things haven’t changed, though. Mark’s childhood bedroom — where he memorably weathered heroin withdrawal in the first film — appears basically untouched, which is kind of sweet and kind of mausoleum-like. Simon still bleaches his hair, which is presumably meant to be a little pathetic, an external symbol of a man who refuses to accept his age (though, perhaps to the film’s detriment, it definitely suits Miller).

Mark’s return home to Scotland leaves space for social commentary on Scotland’s (failed) bid for independence in 2014, Brexit, and the tenuous financial and cultural situation in the European Union — but the film mostly sidesteps the opportunity, sticking to the lads’ more personal struggles. It tries briefly to tie its characters’ disillusionment to widespread use of social media and the internet, but painting a basic, settled, conformist life as misery is not as punk now as it was in 1996.

The familiar but altered contours of Mark’s past life that he encounters in T2 reflect the film’s central quandary, which is a familiar one: Can you ever really go home again? Should you? Or is nostalgia deadly?

When Mark, Simon, and Spud go to visit Tommy’s grave, Simon accuses Mark of being a tourist in his own youth, and the charge sticks. He’s not in Edinburgh to set anything straight, no matter what he claims. He just wants to revisit his glory days. But his friends never managed to leave those glory days, even when they soured, and his selfish fixation on revisiting the past feels exploitative rather than caring.

And yet nostalgia is also memory — the kind that puts us in touch with what made us. Spud’s excellent knack for storytelling, for instance, is more than just a weird little talent. It’s a way of revisiting and keeping alive what could so easily slip away with age.

T2 repeats some of Trainspotting’s tricks, to mostly successful effect

Part of what made Trainspotting such a barnburner in 1996 was its stylistic flourishes, which owed more to music videos than to traditional cinema: unusual camera angles, fast cutting, split-second freeze frames, whole sequences of pure magical realism aping the feeling of being strung out (Mark crawling into a feces-filled toilet being one of the most famous).

T2 tries out some stylistic flourishes, too, but with limited success. In an early scene, subtitles for a thick Scottish accent, instead of being printed across the bottom of the screen, float in midair in a manner similar to the recent John Wick: Chapter 2. But that never reappears, though frozen shots and cockeyed camera angles occur throughout. There’s (far) less drug use in this sequel than before, which cuts down on the need for expressionism and surrealism.

Ewan McGregor and Robert Carlyle in T2 Trainspotting
Ewan McGregor and Robert Carlyle in T2 Trainspotting.

Still, the film maintains visual interest, though much of it wouldn’t make much sense to someone without memory of the first film. Some scenes and jokes are clear callbacks to iconic moments from Trainspotting — one where Mark ends up on the hood of a car, frozen, and then laughs for a second before taking off is especially familiar.

Another visual complication presents itself in Miller and McGregor, both of whose characters have lived hard lives, making it a bit hard to get past their movie-star good looks, which stand out against the background of Edinburgh. But the rest of the cast looks properly aged, and it’s easy to believe these are the same folks, two decades on, all kinds of water having flowed under the metaphorical bridge since then.

No real matter: If you like T2, it’s because you liked Trainspotting, and it’s always fun to see the band get back together. And the shift from youthful ebullience to middle-aged disillusionment, for the most part, is effective: Trainspotting evoked in its audience its characters’ experience, and T2 does as well. Choose life, as Mark would say, and choose a sequel that lives pretty comfortably in its predecessor’s shadow.

T2: Trainspotting opens in theaters in New York and Los Angeles on March 17, followed by wide release on March 31.

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