‘Why are you back here? Nostalgia?’ asks Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) of Renton (Ewan McGregor) as the pair reunite after 20 years and revisit the spot where the ill-fated Tommy MacKenzie tried to get them to appreciate Scotland’s natural beauty. It’s a question that T2, the cheekily titled and long-in-the-making sequel to Trainspotting, Danny Boyle’s masterpiece and perhaps the definitive British film of the ‘90s, asks itself a lot, and even if the answer does largely end up being ‘mainly nostalgia’, it doesn’t stop T2 from being a highly entertaining ride. Obviously, it could never be as good as its era-defining predecessor, but there’s enough here to ensure the sequel is never the depressing retread that, at its worst, it could have been.
It’s been two decades since Renton left Edinburgh with £14,000, ripping off his friends – with the exception of the kindly Spud (Ewen Bremner) – in the process. After suffering a medical episode in his new home of Amsterdam, Renton decides he needs to return to his old haunt, and reconnect with his abandoned mates. 20 years on, and Sick Boy and the imprisoned Begbie (Robert Carlyle) are still holding a murderous grudge (about an amount of money that wouldn’t have lasted them six months), so the red carpet is hardly rolled out for their supposed betrayer.
In these early moments, McGregor is given the least to do out of the core cast, acting more as a plot catalyst than an individual character, but the other three make immediate impacts. Begbie remains an unpredictable powderkeg of violence, Spud is a truly tragic figure, and Jonny Lee Miller is clearly having a blast returning to his name-making role. Sick Boy, now going by his real name Simon, seems to have progressed more than Begbie (in prison) and Spud (still a heroin addict), with girlfriend/business partner Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova) helping him get into the world of blackmailing.
Yet, as soon as Renton arrives at Simon’s run down pub – at night, it really looks like the last boozer left after an apocalypse – neither of them can help but regress. At first, they fight, but it’s not long before the two of them are fooling around like schoolboys, and this warmly funny examination on the de-aging effects of old friendships is far and away T2’s strongest story strand. It fits perfectly with the overarching theme of yearning for youth (Simon’s ridiculous hair and jeans a fantastic visual symbol for this), while being a load of fun in its own right. A sequence in which the two of them have to improvise a folk song while pulling a credit card scam is a joyous high point, guaranteed to bring almost as big a grin to new viewers as it will to long-time fans.
As with the original, John Hodge’s script – this time partly adapted from Irvine Welsh’s literary Trainspotting sequel, Porno – is less focused on plot than it is on vignettes that serve to sum up a crucial moment in one’s life. It is more focused than its predecessor – casting Begbie as a proper villain rather than a wildcard forces more forward motion – but that comes at the expense of the blistering relevance that the 1996 film held, a spectacular state of the nation address that also happened to contain some heroin deals.
If it feels like this review is far too hung up on comparisons to the original, it’s because T2 invites them near-constantly. Echoing shots, revisiting a series of familiar locations, revising Renton’s ‘Choose Life’ speech, and even playing archive footage of the first film, it makes T2 feel oddly self-conscious, even if these choices play well as standalone moments. Boyle’s trademark hyperactive direction is in full effect, and he pulls off some superbly evocative visuals, but in paying too much homage to the first film, the impact is dampened, showing a slight self-consciousness that’s perhaps inevitable when trying to redo a classic.