T2 Trainspotting review – choose a sequel that doesn't disappoint

Danny Boyle’s followup to the cult 1996 hit isn’t quite as quick and extraordinary as the original, but it is a funny, moving ode to middle-aged male disillusion whose risks pay off in spades

Danny Boyle’s T2 Trainspotting is everything I could reasonably have hoped for – scary, funny, desperately sad, with many a bold visual flourish. What began as a zeitgeisty outlaw romp in the Uncool Britannia of the 1990s is now reborn as a scabrous and brutal black comedy about middle-aged male disappointment and fear of death.

It reunites the horribly duplicitous skag-addicted non-heroes of the first movie about twentysomethings trying to get off heroin in Edinburgh, and finding that they have nothing very much to put in its place. In that film, I often hid my head in my hands, unable to watch scenes about dead babies and diving into gruesome lavatories. Now it’s the sight of desolate men’s faces that made me want to look away: stunned by the realisation that their lives are coming to an end.

T2 Trainspotting - full trailer for the sequel to the 1996 hit

Reuniting the cast of Trainspotting for a new adventure 21 years on could have gone badly. The BBC’s misjudged This Life + 10, bringing the cast of the iconic 90s TV drama back together, is a case in point. But Boyle and his four musketeers give it just the right frantic, jaded energy and manic anxiety. My only regrets are that T2 failed to get to grips with the new era of #indyref and Scottish national identity – for which Renton’s famous “shite” speech helped plant a tiny seed in 1996 – and that the second film didn’t give the women characters much to do, especially the excellent Kelly Macdonald and Shirley Henderson.

Boyle revives some of the stylistic tics which found themselves being ripped off by geezer-gangster Britflicks back in the day, but now the freezeframes are briefer, sharper; the movie itself refers back to the original with variant flashback versions of famous scenes, but also Super 8-type images of the boys’ poignant boyhood in primary school. The meaning of the title is made clear in a way that it wasn’t in the first film.

T2: Trainspotting film still

It is loosely adapted by John Hodge from Irvine Welsh’s novel Porno which imagined them coming together again 10 years on; this of course is 20. Nowadays, in a final insult to Archie Gemmill’s legendary goal against Holland in the 1978 World Cup, Renton (Ewan McGregor) is living comfortably in Amsterdam, a thoroughly modern European well-adjusted male with a nice secure job. (He appears also to have forgotten Gemmill in favour of George Best, a slightly obvious icon, I would have thought.)

But a personal and almost menopausal crisis brings him back to an Edinburgh he hardly recognises. As if in a Sergio Leone film, Renton has an obscure need to return, to confront the demons of his past, in particular the three guys he ripped off after a drug deal at the end of the last story.

Weirdly, Renton doesn’t look too much older and the same also goes for Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), who has exchanged heroin for cocaine and nowadays runs an escort-and-blackmail business, secretly videoing clients and extorting money, working with his female business partner, Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova). But poor Spud (Ewen Bremner) is emotionally scarred by a lifetime of drug abuse. And the terrifying Begbie (Robert Carlyle) has been in jail from that day to this, his face fuller, his moustache more disordered and the pupils of his eyes bigger and blacker, like a crocodile’s. Staging a stabbing injury to get transferred to the prison hospital, Begbie plans a daring escape and is horribly excited to hear that Mark Renton is back.

Renton’s big mistake is sheepishly to offer Sick Boy his stolen share 20 years on: £4,000 in a crumpled brown envelope. “What am I supposed to buy with that?” rages Sick Boy bitterly later. “A time machine?” Because, of course, Renton’s betrayal is what he now eagerly blames everything on. That impossible, non-buy-able time machine is at the centre of the story. Renton’s unhappy, unwanted reappearance brings them together for a last hurrah. As with many a male reunion, it is only by seeing each other’s faces that they realise that how old they have got.

T2 Trainspotting: watch a clip from Danny Boyle’s sequel – video

Perhaps you have to have seen the first film to like this one; to feel, like the young fans of Harry Potter, that without knowing or wanting it, you have grown up with its grisly protagonists. But it is weirdly moving when Renton is once again reunited with his laconic and dignified dad — a welcome cameo for James Cosmo — and then to go back into that boyhood bedroom which has been kept exactly as it was: a creepily well judged touch of necrophiliac fidelity to the past.

T2 isn’t as good as T1: it is a little too long and unwinds a bit into caper sentimentality, broad comedy and self-mythologising. But it has the same punchy energy, the same defiant pessimism, and there’s nothing around like it. This sequel was a high-wire act, but Boyle has made it to the other side.

  • T2 Trainspotting is released in the UK on 27 January, in Australia on 23 February and in the US on 17 March.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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