20 years ago, Mark Renton’s jailbait girlfriend Diane told him, “You’re not getting any younger, Mark. The world is changing, music is changing, even drugs are changing. You can’t stay in here all day dreaming about heroin and Ziggy Pop.”
“It’s Iggy Pop.”
“Whatever, I mean the guy’s dead anyway.”
Two decades later, Iggy Pop is still alive, and in that time, the young people he was irrelevant to aren’t young anymore. They’ve graduated high school, gotten jobs, gotten married, had children, become lawyers (at least in Diane’s case). Iggy Pop’s lecturing proponents, meanwhile, are still lecturing. They’re older and wiser, but are they still worth listening to when their lust for life has turned to general malaise?
If you’ll remember (and Trainspotting 2 seems designed strictly for those intimately familiar with the first), Trainspotting ended with Ewan MacGregor’s Mark Renton (the introspective, relatable junkie) ripping off his friends Sick Boy and Begbie (Johnny Lee Miller and Robert Carlysle, the Tragic Junkie and the Psychopath, respectively) of their £4,000 share of a drug deal (leaving a share for innocent Spud, the Pathetic Junkie, played by Ewan Bremmer). Mark walks off into the sunset with the £12,000, presumably to go live a better life somewhere, freed of his dead-end friends, freed of Scotland, and who knows, maybe even of heroin.
Watching the first Trainspotting 20 years later, it’s striking how little meaningful content there was. The gang argues pop culture, a la Clerks or Pulp Fiction, has artfully executed drug trips, a la every drug movie ever, and the everyday travails of Edinburgh junkies are given pizzazz with cheeky voiceover, MTV editing, and magical realism (The Worst Toilet in Scotland). Aside from being memorably gross (I can’t think of another film that contains two separate set pieces involving visible feces), more than anything, Trainspotting was a stylish middle finger (or a stylish two fingers, as it were), two hours of slickly-packaged disaffection with just enough of a happy ending that you didn’t leave the theater feeling just as depressed as its characters.
This isn’t entirely a criticism, by the way. Trainspotting effectively utilized punk rock’s MO (especially the openly commercial punk and grunge of the ’90s), where, with enough boldness, directness, and attitude, it doesn’t matter that you’re playing the same three-chord progression we’ve all heard a million times before. The most representative story arc is Tommy (played by Kevin McKidd, who would go on to achieve acting immortality with his portrayal of Lucius Vorenus in Rome), who was very close to being Where ’90s Tropes Go To Die. Tommy begins the movie as a clean-cut, jock teetotaler, but after Renton swipes his sex tape, it ruins Tommy’s relationship with Lizzy and he turns to heroin. (How often did a misplaced sex tape become a plot device in a ’90s movie? Well, besides Road Trip, Trainspotting, and Overnight Delivery, enough to have its own page on TV Tropes. In 2014 there was even a movie called Sex Tape. Remember that? Eh, sort of.)
Anyway, even though Tommy is the straight arrow non-junkie who was only pushed to heroin by his friends,he’s the one who ends up getting AIDS and dying young. So far, it’s basically every after-school drug special ever (using AIDS as a narrative punishment is a subject for another article). What makes Trainspotting special is the manner of death. Tommy doesn’t just slowly succumb to his disease to punish Renton for his sins and underscore life’s inherent unfairness. What gets Tommy in the end is toxoplasmosis. Apparently, we learn (through a friend telling Renton the story at Tommy’s funeral), Tommy had bought Lizzy a kitten in a misguided attempt at reconciliation, which didn’t work, leaving him stuck with the unwanted kitten, which shat and pissed up his apartment while he relapsed. Eventually, he died from the poisonous fumes. This arc is both Trainspotting in a nutshell and a fairly representative summation of Irvine Welsh as a novelist. It’s the same stylized cautionary tale as Requiem for a Dream, and umpteen other things, but funnier, and with more choking on shit fumes. Kind of the narrative equivalent of Kurt Cobain banging out the Three’s Company theme on an out-of-tune guitar while sneering. So hopelessly ’90s and yet so good.
Trainspotting 2, meanwhile, is Trainspotting‘s mirror image, full of insight and clever observations, but instead of ending with the possibility that Renton might go off to live a better life, he ends up stuck in purgatory, forced to relive the same stylized heroin nightmare for all eternity. Instead of a fashionable angry middle finger with just a kernel of hope, it’s a bit of clear-eyed, sobering self-reflection and social commentary, that’s nonetheless doomed, trapped inexorably up its own ass. It’s lost its sneer and so it’s depressing, like the ironic t-shirt you’re buried in.