Throughout the announcement, development, and advertising of T2 Trainspotting, I actually wasn’t concerned that it might cheapen the original at all; even in a worst case scenario, unnecessary sequels to standalone classics generally have the decency to fade into the background. The fact that we have a follow-up as direct and sentimental as 2010 has done nothing to dilute the mystery of 2001: A Space Odyssey. And these days, who can remember that The Sting II even exists?
So Trainspotting‘s legacy is and always would be safe. But it’s worth having a think (as the British would say) about what that legacy means. Trainspotting is one of the great films of the 90s, a definitive youth movie, and a cornucopia of brilliant acting, writing, and directing. I loved it in high school and I love it now; it’s one of the best “drug movies” simply by allowing for such a range of tones. But, like so many stylish films about bad behavior, there’s always a paradox between the moral of the story and the thrill of its telling. When I think of all the Trainspotting posters I saw in dorm rooms during college, my guess is that they’d been hung on the wall not because of the film’s life-affirming ending, but because of the infectious, heroin-fueled anarchy that preceded it. So all those comparatively sheltered kids who could quote the film verbatim, but who were on their way to white collar jobs and would never dream of risking any drug harder than mushrooms—had they misunderstood the film? Or did they and the film understand each other perfectly?
If nothing else, T2 Trainspotting becomes an attempt to reckon with this paradox. It dives in with a sense of worldliness, and the first half hour is done so well that it justifies the film’s existence. You can see why director Danny Boyle would want to revisit this group, and why he insisted on waiting for the original cast to age before doing so. As the film (re)introduces the hell-raisers of 1996, it extends a “youth movie” into a sensitive, character-driven look at time gone by. Here are figures, their hair greying and their faces creased, who realize all too well that they’ve pissed it away.
In a way, it’s a crying shame the film then felt the need to have a plot. The characters are as engaging as ever: Ewan McGregor, of course, but Ewen Bremner is the beating heart and Robert Carlyle registers instantly as both tragic and threatening in a role that requires both. But when the film throws them back into criminal schemes and hijinks—when, in other words, it tries to simply be Trainspotting 2—it becomes an awkward blend of tones and plot contortions. (In this case, it involves sexual blackmail, defrauding the British government, running afoul of a local mob boss, and having to improvise a song in a hostile pub). It can’t quite sell McGregor’s return to such risk-taking after having gone straight for twenty years; the only answer he gives is that he “can’t think of anything better,” and both he and the story need more than that. When the film plays the hits, or when it goes for guffaws, it cheapens the mature themes it’s laid out for itself. It’s nearly a half hour longer than the original, not because it covers more ground, but because it keeps losing focus. The cast is great, and Danny Boyle proves he can adapt his hyper-kinetic direction to quiet moments. But the telling is muddled, and as one paradox is reckoned with, several more pop up in its wake.
T2 Trainspotting is available now on home video. If SnapChat filters are the future of cinema, this isn’t it. But it will introduce you to “Silk” by Wolf Alice.