T2 Trainspotting (2017)
One of the most daring, impressive and uncomfortable films of the 1950s is Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly’s It’s Always Fair Weather … a musical which isn’t quite a sequel to the same team’s dazzling On the Town but does revisit the earlier hit’s premise of a trio of all-singing, all-dancing service pals a few years later to find that the hijinx have gone stale and that the guy who’s changed and the guy who hasn’t are equally tragic, that middle age, bitterness and disappointment have set in. All in CinemaScope and Technicolor – of course, it was not a hit, but it’s peculiarly memorable and weirdly profound. A few years back, Edgar Wright cited It’s Always Fair Weather as an inspiration for The World’s End – to be fair, he also mentioned The Earth Dies Screaming.
T2, the cheekily-titled follow-up to the 1996 hit Trainspotting – which reunites director Danny Boyle, screenwriter John Hodge, source author Irvine Welsh and most of the original cast (even the one with US TV series commitments – inevitably feels like an It’s Always Fair Weather cover version, though the delayed sequel trend can be dated back at least to Alexander Dumas’s Musketeers revival Twenty Years Later. When it was announced, I half-seriously suggested that a real ‘20 years later’ follow-up to Trainspotting would be a tour of untended graves – and, in the event, one of the lads (Kevin McKidd’s character) is dead of HIV/overdose, though that at least spares him the disappointments his pals have.
T2 picks up from the end of Trainspotting – in which Renton (Ewan McGregor) ripped off the cash from a drug deal made by his friends, stealing from Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) and Begbie (Robert Carlyle) but equally cruelly leaving a large wad of cash for Spud (Ewen Bremner), who whines ‘I’m a junkie, what do you think I did with the money?’ when Renton comes back to Edinburgh after a spell as a family man in Amsterdam. Begbie, of course, has just broken out of prison hospital – though the cops show no interest in finding him, not even visiting the house where he moves in with his tolerant wife and shamefully-bound-for-a-career-in-hotel-management-rather-than-thieving son. Sick Boy, now Simon, runs a blackmail racket with Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova), a Bulgarian hooker, and plans to turn his aunt’s derelict pub into a sauna. And Spud is estranged from wife Gail (Shirley Henderson) but off the skag and scribbling Irvine Welsh-type stories on yellow legal pads.
Like Trainspotting, it doesn’t really have much of a plot – the earlier film was all anecdotes and scrapes and gross-outs, which this goes over again (the scene where Begbie reads Spud’s version of the glass-tossing incident is priceless), but often with a bit more distance. As Renton and Simon rave about 1970s trivia while a John Barry 007 theme plays and captions pop up and fizzle, Veronika just tunes out – in subtitled Bulgarian, she diagnoses that these lifelong friends who hate and betray each other constantly would probably be happiest if she left so they can fuck each other. Some of the self-contained sketches are funny – a Blues Brothers riff as the unlikely lads have to improvise a Battle of the Boyne-themed song (‘there were no more Catholics left’) to entertain a pubload of diehard loyalists whose credit cards they have just stolen en masse because they know most of them will use 1690 as a PIN. Others are deliberately sour – the darkest moment has Renton and Simon shuddering as they go back on smack while Spud shivers in terror in a corner.
Trainspotting was as much an indictment of the lads as a celebration of their free spirits, and this chills the big chill further by giving Spud the unlikely out of literature and letting the psycho Begbie almost accept that he’s outmoded (his determined pursuit of the friend who ripped him off still keeps the action/excitement quotient up, and is perhaps the reason for the Terminator 2 reference) while holding Renton and Sick Boy (aka Mark and Simon) up for scorn. Renton is only occasionally a narrator here and has a vindictive solo speech on the ‘choose life’ theme and is ultimately lost and despicable – the earlier film had him always running centre-screen … here, the camera flees from him as his train-wallpapered room becomes a tunnel while he dances to the old hits. There’s an imbalance, of course, in that this is more interested in boys being dicks than women getting on with life … Kelly MacDonald comes back for a bit as a sensible lawyer, but Nedyalkova’s hooker is the main female viewpoint. The quartet of male stars, not all of whom have had the greatest material in the last twenty years, are indulged and pampered and given great material – but Henderson, one of the best actresses of her generation, is reduced to delivering one line (though it’s a belter).
It’s a pointed, poignant return to a seminal movie – which is a risky gig, as anyone who’s ever tracked down Gregory’s Two Girls or More American Graffiti will attest … and Boyle remains one of the most inventive British filmmakers. Before the screening, Boyle addressed the questions he had been bombarded with about this project, including the obvious ‘will the soundtrack be as great?’ His response ‘how could it be?’ shows a deep understanding of the project of this film, which doesn’t try to be as cutting edge for now as Trainspotting was for then. How could it? Just as The World’s End revisited Shaun of the Dead and opened up the cracks in laddish cameraderie, this points out what should have been obvious all along – that, for all their charm, these guys self-describe as ‘cunts’ for very good reasons. Presumably, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, The Full Monty, Billy Elliot and Peter’s Friends should get this treatment in the next year or two.