In 1996, Danny Boyle was at the top of his game. A young and hungry Mancunian director with an eye for vibrant, dynamic visuals that drew inspiration from the likes of Kubrick, and an ear for iconic, on-the-pulse soundtracks. His sophomore film Trainspotting was his calling card, launching not just his career but those of everyone involved - not least the young Ewan McGregor, Robert Carlyle and Kelly Macdonald. The cultural impact of the film can’t be overstated; adapted from “post acid house” writer Irvine Welsh’s shattering debut novel, it’s far more than a film about junkies- it’s still an important reference point today for cinematic style and culture, capturing the zeitgeist in a way no major film before or since has really achieved.
So news of a sequel brought to mind a quote from Trainspotting: “You’ve got it, then you lose it”, opines Jonny Lee Miller’s Sick Boy before pontificating on the inevitable downward trajectory of Lou Reed, David Niven and Malcolm McLaren. Even the greatest artists, he believes, are doomed to mediocrity. It would be easy to take that musing and use it to cast doubt on the credibility of a follow-up - the idea that “we all get old and then we can’t hack it any more” was always going to loom large over the sequel to a cultural phenomenon made in the filmmakers’ prime.
It’s testament to the shrewdness of Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge that rather than running away from this inherent problem, they make it the focus of the new film. While the surface elements of Trainspotting are all there - drugs, disastrous sex, beatings, thieving, scheming, Hibs, Adidas and Underworld - T2: Trainspotting is an entirely different creation. It’s a film about ageing, decay, failure and disappointment, with both the characters that inhabit the film and those behind the camera all too aware of their former glory and virility.
When we catch up with the main cast, we find that, just as Sick Boy predicted, they’ve all in some sense “lost it”. Spud has never managed to stay off smack, Begbie’s been stewing in jail for twenty years, and Sick Boy has given up his lofty ambitions to make it as a pimp and pusher to run his auntie’s pub, with a sideline in filming and extorting prostitutes' clients. Even Renton, the one member of the gang who’s supposed to have realised his dreams and escaped to a better life in Amsterdam, finds his world crumbling around him, his unexpected redundancy and failed marriage driving him back to Edinburgh. He soon reconnects with his old friends, but things start to fall apart when Begbie escapes from prison and catches wind of Renton’s return, and the film becomes a violent game of cat and mouse.
It’s to T2’s credit that it doesn’t try in vain to live up to its predecessor in terms of having a lasting impact on the wider culture. A soundtrack heavily featuring Edinburgh’s Young Fathers doesn’t pack the same punch, and the cast don’t have the same striking look this time around. The fact that the music and wardrobe choices are slightly out of touch with contemporary youth culture is fitting: this is 2017 seen through the eyes of four middle-aged men, and when in one scene they step into an Edinburgh club full of teenagers, they look exactly as they should: bewildered. Renton wears bootcut jeans and still listens to Iggy Pop, and Sick Boy obsesses over old videos of George Best playing for Hibs. As the latter’s younger girlfriend Veronika notifies them, the pair are trapped in the past. Times have changed and left them behind.
Where the film succeeds most is in its portrayal of the things that really haven’t changed since the first instalment; a scene in which Renton and Sick Boy infiltrate a Protestant sectarian pub to steal the patrons’ credit cards (all of whose pins are 1690) and end up having to improvise a chant about the Battle of the Boyne recaptures some of the energy of the original without harking back to it.
And for fans of Trainspotting, there is of course a magic in watching these characters simply interact again. In interviews the stars have readily admitted a special attachment to their roles in the franchise that made their names, and it shows - there’s a sense that some of the cast are giving the performance of their lives. Robert Carlyle, in particular, manages to balance that trademark menace with big laughs and unexpected pathos, his dual unchecked rage and pacifying regret perfectly encapsulating the ideas behind the sequel while reminding us what made the original so great.
Some of Lou Reed's solo stuff’s not bad, and owing to an inventive concept and stellar performances, neither is this. Though it would be an impossible task to better Trainspotting, that isn’t the intention here - T2 is a worthy addition to the legacy that always looks back with reverence at the film that started it all.