March 25, 2017
Choose life. Choose a movie. Choose a sequel. Choose an inexplicable Terminator reference for a title. Choose a mid-life crisis. Choose nostalgia. Choose a half-baked screenplay. Choose style over substance. Choose garish cinematography. Choose terrible remixes of iconic songs. Choose imposing plot on a story that does not require one. Choose tonal inconsistency. Choose wasting a good cast. Choose two good scenes. Choose a missed opportunity. Choose T2 Trainspotting .
The original Trainspotting opens with protagonist Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) delivering the now-iconic Choose Life monologue as he and his two mates, Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) and Spud (Ewan Bremner), are chased down the streets of Edinburgh, until Renton bumps into a car, gives a wicked smile to the drivers, and is tackled by the polis. All the while, Iggy Pop’s classic ode to the fucked-up “Lust for Life” blasts on the soundtrack, perfectly capturing the frenetic energy of the characters we are about to follow.
Picking up 20 years after the events of its predecessor, T2 opens promisingly enough, with the middle-aged Renton running on a treadmill before he is suddenly knocked to the ground by a heart attack. This is one of the film’s most inspired call-backs to the original, but far from the last. Like in the first film, this introduction succeeds at putting us inside Renton’s current state and sets up what could potentially be an interesting juxtaposition between the danger and recklessness of his youth and the banality of his existence as a 46 year-old.
However, this is not the approach taken by director Danny Boyle and writers John Hodge and Irvine Welsh. T2 tries not only to match the spectacular chaos and romantic doom of the original film, but, inappropriately considering the ages of the characters, tries to out-do it as well. Which means a ridiculous plot, focusing far too heavily on the least interesting character, the one-note rage-machine, Begbie, as he breaks out of prison and attempts to get his revenge on Renton for ripping him off for £ 4,000; ridiculously garish and unmotivated camera angles and lighting choices; and a running time that exceeds the original by 23 minutes (though it feels even longer). It is almost as if the filmmakers are having a midlife crises themselves, but not in a way that reflects what the characters are experiencing.
It would have been nice to see Renton, Sick Boy (now referred to by his birth name, Simon), and Spud spend time together over a few drinks and catch up—a lot can happen in 20 years, but we learn virtually nothing. Instead, we have them all running for their lives as Begbie seeks his revenge. Aside from the clever opening, the only scene in the movie that really succeeds in capturing the spirit of the original is the extended sequence where Mark and Simon hustle members of a pub, and make off with cash in hand. Seeing the two work a scheme together again was a joy, and it highlights what a mistake it was for the rest of the film to focus so heavily on car chases, guns, and fuckin’ Begbie.
The original film had a strong sense of stakes and emotional heft, largely due to the limited scale of the story. Several distinct characters, a few stylish touches (Renton literally sinking deep into the floor during an overdose, the guilt-induced horror of seeing the dead baby on the ceiling during his withdrawal), and a strong sense of place all contributed to the original Trainpotting ’s continuing cult classic status. The new film suffers from too many, poorly rendered characters, style out the wazoo (seemingly motivated not by the story or characters, but a larger budget and a director more experienced with action), and no memorable locations aside several re-used from the original.
The task of making a worthy sequel to a 20-year-old classic is daunting and certainly difficult, but the approach taken by the filmmakers is completely miscalculated. Perhaps they should have followed the template set by Richard Linklater’s Before Trilogy : each film was made nine years apart, and function as quick check-ins on the characters we love, whose lives seemed never to have stopped even when the cameras were not rolling. Each successive film tries to out-do the previous not in style and action, but in emotional heft. Using time itself as a dramatic tool, we are moved by how the characters faces have aged, and by how they change and how they stay the same. T2 makes very little use of the actors’ aging appearances, despite literally showing us what they used to look like with reused footage from Trainspotting .
With T2 and his previous film Steve Jobs, Danny Boyle seems to have transformed from an edgy, high-energy, darkly comic filmmaker into a sentimental stylist. (Even his taste in music seems to have diminished, with both films ending with a terrible song.) I am not one to write off a skilled artist after a few failures, but Sick Boy had some thoughts on the matter 20 years ago: “Certainly a phenomenon in all walks of life. Well, at one point you’ve got it, then you lose it. Then it’s gone forever. Georgie Best, for example, had it, lost it. Or David Bowie or Lou Reed […] It’s not bad, but it’s not great either, is it? And in your heart, although it sounds alright… it’s actually just shite.”