If you live long enough, chances are you’ll betray a dear friend. It might be a secret shared without permission, credit willfully withheld—or, if you’re a Scottish heroin addict from the postindustrial hellscape known as the port of Leith, you could abscond with the proceeds of a dodgy drug deal, leaving lifelong pals and partners in crime empty-handed and mad as hell.
That, of course, is where we left Mark “Rent Boy” Renton (Ewan McGregor), fleeing Edinburgh and his comrades Simon “Sick Boy” Williamson (Jonny Lee Miller), Francis “Franco” Begbie (Robert Carlyle), and Daniel “Spud” Murphy (Ewen Bremner) at the end of Danny Boyle’s magnificent 1996 movie Trainspotting. Twenty-one years later, T2 Trainspotting casts its middle-aged eyes on Renton as he returns home after two decades in Amsterdam. Can he reconnect with his mates—or will they kill him first?
The Up series, another British movie franchise obsessed with the passage of time, famously took as its premise the claim “Give me a child until he is 7, and I will give you the man.” That’s certainly borne out in Trainspotting. The guys Renton used to share needles with have barely changed over the intervening years. This is literally true for McGregor and Miller—when Boyle creates flashbacks by including shots from the original movie, it’s hard to tell which century these Dorian Grays belong in—but they’re all stuck in the past.
Simon has shed his youthful soubriquet, but he’s still living in Leith, extorting educators, and dreaming of turning his aunt’s run-down pub into a fancy brothel—excuse me, a sauna—to be run by Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova), his young Bulgarian girlfriend/accomplice. Sweet, lost Spud is still on the skag. Despite his best efforts to reconcile with girlfriend Gail (Shirley Henderson) and their now-teenage son, “wee Fergus,” doing heroin is the only thing he’s ever been good at. Meanwhile, years behind bars have made Begbie a fish out of temporal water—after he escapes from Her Majesty’s Prison Edinburgh, it’s not just phones and fashion that perplex him but also the idea that his son might prefer a career in hotel management over the family trade of breaking and entering.
As soon as Renton re-enters his old friends’ lives, ancient patterns re-emerge. He saves Spud in a beautiful, puke-spattered scene and immediately attempts a rehabilitation project that’s more geared to Renton’s own needs than to Spud’s. He and Simon square off in an epic, no-holds-barred brawl, but soon they’re sharing a couch and blabbing on about George Best, their boyhood soccer idol. And Begbie’s mustache might be flecked with gray, but he’s still feral and foul-mouthed and just as evil as when he and Renton first met in elementary school.
The 1996 movie, and Irvine Welsh’s 1993 novel that spawned it, provides a precious snapshot of a turning point in British life—the moment when, as writer Owen Jones put it, the working class went from “salt of the earth” to “scum of the earth“—but outside of the anti-consumerist “Choose Life” monologue, which gets a bravado reprise in the sequel, this cultural transformation was indicated rather than commented upon. Like its 20th-century predecessor, T2 Trainspotting wears its sociology lightly. The contrast between the new, gentrified Scotland and the embarrassing bits of the nation’s history that have been tossed into the trash like last week’s haggis is handled with a gentle touch. Even a glorious set piece among the Fenian-hating Protestants who now gather in secret to sing sectarian songs and celebrate their ancestors’ long-ago victory at the Battle of the Boyne is played for laughs rather than censorious tut-tutting.
The original Trainspotting was a miraculous gathering of talent: All the actors—with the possible exception of Bremner—went on to international stardom, and Boyle parlayed the kaleidoscopic creativity he first got global attention for with the movie into an Oscar-winning career and the greatest, goofiest opening ceremony in Olympic history. But a glimpse at the original movie’s poster points to the sequel’s biggest irritation: Peering out alongside the sneering gents was Kelly Macdonald, who played Renton’s manipulative young girlfriend, Diane. Macdonald makes a cameo appearance in T2, but like the movie’s other middle-aged women, she lacks the oblivious joie de vivre the guys have held onto. Superficially, Diane, a fancy lawyer whose hourly rate makes Renton blanch, is a success, but she’s cold and condescending and utterly lacking in human kindness. While the men stay young by acting like little boys, Begbie’s wife, June, and Spud’s baby mama, Gail, are denied that option—they can’t escape the wear and tear that long-term relationships with a violent psychopath and a hopeless junkie, respectively, inevitably inflict.
If, like me, you’re roughly the same age as the cast and characters of Trainspotting, the sequel is likely to trigger a gusher of nostalgia. This becomes explicit when Spud replaces his addiction to heroin with a raging graphomania. The youthful memories he scribbles on yellow pads have the power to soothe even Begbie’s savage breast. A delicious plot twist is ginned up to serve as the film’s clever climax, but I was more interested in the relationship drama. For those of us who have survived our own rollercoaster friendships, T2’s trip is far more intense than Trainspotting’s youthful highs.