In one of the many reunion scenes in T2: Trainspotting, the sequel to the 1996 indie hit film Trainspotting, Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) tells his old friend Simon, a.k.a. Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), that after a heart attack, he had a stent inserted that will ensure that he lives 30 more years. He then laments his longevity. He would know what to do with two or three years, but he has no idea what to do with 30. “I’m 46 years old,” he moans, “and I’m f****d!” As with all the major characters in the Trainspotting universe, Renton’s experience is framed by the emptiness of time in a world where meaning has been reduced to arbitrary consumer choice, a world in which, as Renton boldly proclaimed in his famous “choose life” speech in the original, it makes as much sense to be on heroin as not to.
Although it has been 20 years since the original, the characters, dialogue, and action feel fresh and smart. With another terrific soundtrack, and using the same source material (an Irvine Welsh novel), writer John Hodge and director Danny Boyle have achieved the rare feat of creating a film that satisfies the sequel viewer’s desire for both nostalgia and novelty.
Trainspotting focused on four friends: Renton, Tommy (Kevin McKidd), Spud (Ewen Bremner), and Simon. Another of their regular acquaintances is Francis Begbie (Robert Carlyle), the only one in the group who never develops a heroin habit, but his life is equally disordered by a spectacular lust for violence. Explicit sexuality and violence remain as much a part of the world of the sequel as they were of the original film.
The action of T2 can be appreciated without knowledge of the first film, but only to a point. There are clever allusions throughout, not just to the previous film but also to other films, such as Raging Bull, Miller’s Crossing, and The Shining. Early on, T2 recalls the big ending of the original. After a drug sale, engineered by Begbie, that netted the gang a large sum, Mark absconded with the funds and escaped to Amsterdam. It also eventually clues the audience in to the layers of guilt the characters experience for previous wrongs: Mark led Tommy to his death by persuading him to try heroin, while Sick Boy’s infant daughter succumbed to crib death as he and his buddies lay sleeping after taking drugs. But these matters will need to be pieced together on the fly by viewers unfamiliar with the original.
Utterly lost on them will be the sequel’s numerous, subtle allusions to the first film. Trainspotting opens, for example, with a close-up of Renton’s running feet as he flees after committing a robbery. Renton takes a corner, collides with an unsuspecting driver, and rolls over the hood; before taking off again he pauses, leans toward the window of the car, and laughs maniacally at the driver. T2 begins similarly, with a close-up of Renton’s feet, this time as he exercises on a health-club treadmill; suddenly he collapses, is thrown from the treadmill, and lays motionless on the floor.
T2 picks up 20 years after the original, with Mark returning to Edinburgh to face up to his past. Spud is unemployed and still addicted to heroin. Mark arrives just in time to save Spud from suicide. To Mark’s expectation that Spud will express gratitude, Spud taunts, “You already ruined my life, now you ruined my death.” Sick Boy runs a failed pub and makes money running a blackmailing scheme that targets family men whom he films having sex with his Bulgarian-prostitute girlfriend, Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova). Begbie, whose violence was an occasion for some of the most memorable scenes in Trainspotting, has been in jail for 20 years; he escapes and eventually discovers, in a chance meeting crafted specifically for the world of Trainspotting, that Renton is back. Both Sick Boy and Begbie vow to seek revenge on Mark for his financial betrayal, but the latter’s threat is far more ominous.
Perhaps the most important reference to the original occurs in a scene in which Veronika asks Mark what “choose life” means. She claims Sick Boy goes into occasional rants about it. Mark informs her that “choose life” was the tagline of one of the anti-drug promotions back in the day. Renton’s satirical take-off on that line frames the first film at its beginning and end. In that film’s opening voice-over, Renton offers, in wry, buoyant, ironic terms, the following meditation on a culture of consumer choice:
Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a f*****g big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact-disc players and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance. Choose fixed interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisurewear and matching luggage. . . . Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pissing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, f****d up brats you spawned to replace yourselves. Choose your future. Choose life. . . . But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life. I chose somethin’ else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?
Renton replaces the prohibitive “Dare to Say No” with his recklessly ebullient “Dare to Say Yes.” Interviewed for a making-of video for the original film, Boyle praised Irvine Welsh’s novel for its honest exploration of both the horrors and the attractiveness of drug use: “It doesn’t flinch to tell you what can happen to you, but it also tells you how extraordinary these drugs can be.”
In T2, we get updated references: “Choose Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and hope that someone somewhere cares” or “chose reality TV, slut shaming, and revenge porn.” We also get a marked change in tone. Whereas the original speech was detached and mocking, an expression of convention-defying self-confidence, the updated version starts out energetic but turns weary, laden with resignation. The accent is on betrayal, disappointment, and death, not as a pursuer with which one races or competes but as the inevitable victor.
If the original film was about gleefully avoiding consequences, the sequel is to some extent about coming to terms with them, but only to an extent. There is good reason to be skeptical that any of the characters will be able to occupy responsible social relationships in any sustained way. They have at best an episodic sense of self, constructed by isolated choices, whose commitments can be unmade as quickly as they have been made. They remain, as one character accusingly and knowingly observes, “tourists” in their own lives.
— Thomas S. Hibbs, the dean of the Honors College at Baylor University, is the author of Shows about Nothing.
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