T2 Trainspotting review – still in a class A of their own

Danny Boyle’s long-awaited sequel to the era-defining Trainspotting is a vibrant and welcome reunion

There are few cinema images more iconic than the sight of Ewan McGregor’s feet hitting the ground running to the frantic drumbeats of Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life in the opening moments of Trainspotting, or the sound of a poppy T-shirt slogan (“Choose life”) being turned into a scabrous countercultural call to arms. Both are cheekily revisited in T2 Trainspotting, the long-awaited (or perhaps feared?) sequel that catches up with novelist Irvine Welsh’s antiheroes two decades later, and finds them ravaged not so much by heroin as by age, emasculation and an air of disappointment.

No longer the angry young man who once tore down Edinburgh’s Princes Street, McGregor’s Renton is here introduced pounding a gymnasium treadmill, a sardonic nod to former fast times. Drawn back to his old haunts in the wake of a midlife crisis, he is shocked to find Spud (Ewen Bremner) with his head in a plastic bag, longing to end his miserable existence. Meanwhile, Jonny Lee Miller’s broilingly embittered Simon (AKA “Sick Boy”) spends his days nursing old grievances against his former “best friend” who ran off with his loot 20 years ago (“First there was an opportunity”, runs a recurrent line, “then there was a betrayal”). As for Begbie (Robert Carlyle), a lengthy spell behind bars has estranged him from his teenage son, leaving him to face up to lonely fatherhood truths, tingeing his still violent sociopathy with a streak of pathos.

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

It’s easy to forget just how shocking Trainspotting’s scenes of intravenous heroin use were, and how much the language of horror cinema inflected its shiversome visions of dead babies crawling across ceilings. Yet more shocking still would be the spectre of the original film-makers reteaming for a belated cash-in sequel that somehow undermined the enduring legacy of the original. “It’d better not be shite” was the phrase that director Danny Boyle remembers hearing repeatedly on the set of T2 Trainspotting, whispered by everyone from cast to crew. Thankfully, T2 is definitely not “shite”. While it may lack the vampiric teeth of its youthful predecessor, it is a worthy sequel to what has become a sacred original, respecting the rough edges of its forerunner while putting middle-aged flesh on the once raw ribcages of its oddly sympathetic subjects.

Drawing on both Welsh’s 1993 novel and its 2002 sequel, Porno, returning screenwriter John Hodge forges new narrative paths, remembering the glory days of yore without becoming what Simon calls “a tourist in your own youth”. The story may be driven by extortion, prostitution, addiction and even Death Wish-style revenge, but its primary concerns are friendship and memory (recurrent Boyle themes), with editor Jon Harris shuffling time frames like playing cards, old knaves coming face to face with new kings and queens, the latter in the shape of Anjela Nedyalkova’s enigmatic Veronika.

Jonny Lee Miller and Ewan McGregor rolling back the years.
Jonny Lee Miller and Ewan McGregor rolling back the years. Photograph: Graeme Hunter

The real triumph of the original Trainspotting was that it gave vibrant voice to protagonists who would elsewhere be written off as deadbeats, turning them into empowered characters rather than downtrodden victims. The same is true of the sequel, nowhere more so than in the character of Spud, who gradually becomes the true heart of the drama, the author of his own story. Bremner is just terrific in the role, his Keatonesque physicality perfectly capturing Spud’s blend of fragility and resilience, finding hidden depths beneath the defensively gormless facade. Like the movie itself, Spud can be both hilarious and heartbreaking; you want to hug him, even when his face is explosively splattered with vomit.

Visually, T2 reminds us that Boyle comes from a rebellious lineage of British cinema that can be traced back through Nicolas Roeg and Ken Russell to the classic films of Powell and Pressburger (the latter the grandfather of Trainspotting producer Andrew Macdonald). Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle quotes affectionately from his predecessor Brian Tufano’s kinetic playbook, and the bold colour schemes of Kave Quinn’s original production designs haunt the new locations. Yet this new movie retains a distinctly modern edge even as it looks back to the future. On the soundtrack, Underworld’s Rick Smith provides “original score and needle drops”, which blend altered fragments of old favourites with newer offerings from the likes of Young Fathers, High Contrast and Wolf Alice.

How T2 will play to younger audiences who didn’t grow up with the 1996 original is anyone’s guess. It’s hardly likely to become a touchstone text for a new generation of cinemagoers. But from the perspective of a fiftysomething film fan who was shaken up by Trainspotting all those years ago, it’s enough that the opportunity for this class reunion has not become a betrayal.


Mark Kermode, Observer film critic

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Trainspotting review – still a cinematic drug of choice
A rerelease of the 1996 box-office smash finds its tale of Edinburgh heroin addicts looking remarkably fresh faced despite the advancing years

Wendy Ide

15, Jan, 2017 @8:00 AM

Article image
Trainspotting 2: first teaser trailer released
Short promo for the sequel to the hit British movie, released to coincide with the start of shooting, does not contain any new material

Ben Child

16, May, 2016 @11:35 AM

Article image
Robert Carlyle: 'I took out two teeth and suddenly Begbie came back to life'
The return of Trainspotting’s psychopathic antihero in sequel T2 has reignited old friendships for Robert Carlyle. He talks pushing buttons, Brexit blues and the benefits of getting older

Danny Leigh

08, Jan, 2017 @4:00 PM

Article image
Trainspotting sequel on track says Danny Boyle
Ben Child: The director hopes to reunite the original cast in time for the 20th anniversary of his first Irvine Welsh adaptation

Ben Child

11, Mar, 2013 @2:15 PM

Article image
New Trainspotting sequel trailer released
T2 reunites the surviving four characters from Danny Boyle’s 1996 film and looks at what has happened to them 20 years on

Alan Evans

03, Nov, 2016 @7:11 AM

Article image
Five things we learned from the first full trailer for T2: Trainspotting
Do the drugs still work – if so, which ones? Hooray, Kelly Macdonald is still in it, Begbie is, thankfully, still angry and who’s not been using moisturiser?

Ben Child

03, Nov, 2016 @12:11 PM

Article image
Trainspotting review – Danny Boyle's classic holds up terrifically well
This supercharged 1996 story of drugs, violence and growing up has lost none of its edge ahead of the release of sequel T2

Peter Bradshaw

12, Jan, 2017 @10:45 PM

Article image
Ewan McGregor ready to work with Danny Boyle on Trainspotting sequel Porno
Trainspotting star keen to take part in Danny Boyle's planned film based loosely on Irvine Welsh's book

Ben Child

16, May, 2013 @11:41 AM

Article image
Choose life, choose Leith: alternative Edinburgh celebrates Trainspotting 2
Irvine Welsh’s book and Danny Boyle’s film defined the Scottish capital’s dark side – now they’re shooting the sequel

Kevin McKenna

22, May, 2016 @7:00 AM

Article image
T2 Trainspotting: discuss Danny Boyle's sequel with spoilers
Choose a follow-up? What did you think of the soundtrack, the transformations and the exploits of the re-formed cast of characters, 20 years after the original?

Ben Child

27, Jan, 2017 @11:47 AM