“It’s certainly a phenomenon in all walks of life,” “Sick Boy,” a.k.a. Simon (Johnny Lee Miller) explains to his friend Mark (Ewan McGregor) in Danny Boyle’s 1996 film Trainspotting. “At one time you’ve got it, and then you lose it, and it’s gone forever.” To illustrate this he offers examples from David Bowie to David Niven to Sean Connery. “So we all get old and then we can’t hack it anymore?,” Mark replies.
It’s the sort of observation a kid who never expects to get old makes, and neither Sick Boy nor Mark — both low-level Edinburgh criminals with serious heroin habits — seemed like good candidates for collecting a pension in that film. But T2: Trainspotting finds them still alive, if not exactly thriving, in their forties. Mark’s wisely stayed far away from his hometown after fleeing with all that ill-gotten cash at the end of Trainspotting, but his mother’s death, and other circumstances, draw him back as T2 begins. Simon, when not running a dilapidated pub he’s inherited, has graduated from petty theft to blackmail, enlisting his sort-of girlfriend Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova), an Eastern European immigrant who helps him catch record men in compromising positions, into his schemes.
At least they’re doing much better than the other half of the original Trainspotting foursome. Spud (Ewan Bremmer) has continued to slide into addiction, watching the dream of a quiet family life slide away. And Begbie (Robert Carlyle), still enraged by Mark’s treachery, fumes in a prison cell — though, thanks to a daring escape scheme, not for long.
Reunions are as tricky a business in movies has they are in music. Will it just be a nostalgia trip? Do you have anything new to say? Does it matter? Will it be awkward for middle-aged artists to retread the territory of their youth? T2 puts its relationship with the first film front and center. Each character remains haunted by their reckless youth and Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge fills the screen with their ghosts. (Hodge also returns from the original film. His script draws from author Irvine Welsh’s original Trainspotting and the author’s sequel, Porno, which it diverges from significantly.)
Turning a corner, Mark stumbles on the spot where he was arrested in the original film’s opening scene. Alone in his childhood bedroom, unchanged from when we last saw it, he drops Iggy Pop’s “Lust For Life” on the turntable but can’t bring himself to listen past the first chord. To his ears, it sounds like a lie.
Sometimes those revived ghosts don’t work in T2’s favor. The film stops cold for Mark to deliver a new riff on the original’s “Choose Life” monologue. It’s well-written and McGregor delivers it passionately, but it feels shoehorned in, a greatest hit the reunited band couldn’t get away without playing. Despite some clever set pieces — the scamming of some Scottish sectarians, Begbie and Mark’s heated reunion — it’s not the only such moment, and much of T2 ends up feeling like an extended epilogue to the original film than a story that had to be told.
Still, there’s nothing wrong with a good epilogue, just like there’s nothing wrong with a good reunion, even one primarily fueled by memories of past glories. The four leads offer poignant turns on their aging losers. MacGregor lets Mark wear his disappointment in what his life’s become like a rumpled overcoat and Miller plays Simon as a character who maybe, just maybe, has started to realize he can’t be an asshole to everyone all the time. Carlyle makes Begbie, with his neat haircut and graying mustache, look almost cuddly between bursts of anger, and even he’s forced into introspective moments thanks to his attempts to bring his son into the thieving trade.
But it’s Bremmer who gives the film its heart. Used mostly as comic relief in the original, his Spud here becomes the gang’s best hope of someone finding some meaning in all their misdeeds, past and present. Bremmer’s lost none of his rubber-faced comic chops, but here he gives the character a depth the original never suggested, and makes the original feel like a deeper film in the process.
T2 never quite captures the spark of its predecessor, but in some ways that’s part of the point. The characters are older now, and though they might not be any smarter, the years have made them more reflective. The lust for life has left them, but life itself has not. Whether that’s a blessing or a curse remains a question T2 keeps raising without giving its characters an answer. They might not have chosen life, but now they have to figure out what to do with the lives they’ve got.