T2 Trainspotting (2017, directed by Danny Boyle, 117 minutes, U.K.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC Trainspotting was a fun lark in 1996, so why not bring the boys back together 20 years later to catch up? Drawing partially from Irvine Welsh’s literary sequel, Porno, director Danny Boyle takes the dare and ties off for another hit of drugs, banter, and hi-jinks. Reuniting the 40-something Scots (Rent Boy, Sick Boy, Begbie, and Spud) the film wants to be a knowing look at middle-age but seems to be just as confused as its characters on the question of why is exists.
Spud (Ewen Bremner) is certainly asking that question when we first catch up with him. Addicted to cocaine, losing his wife and child, Spud literally has a plastic bag over his head when Rent Boy (Ewan McGregor) walks back into his life. You’d be forgiven for forgetting that Rent Boy ran off with his old friends’ loot at the end of the original, making what seemed at the time a pretty good judgment that his self-destructive friends would never escape the dead end life in Edinburgh but maybe he has a shot. Apparently, Rent Boy blew that shot in Amsterdam (he’s vague about what happened) and now he’s back in his home town, with nothing better to do than look up his old pals and ask forgiveness.
The film’s problem isn’t in continuing these characters — along with Rent Boy and Spud, we quickly catch up with Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) now a pimp/blackmailer and Begbie (Robert Carlyle) who has escaped from prison and is still full of violence. The problem comes from putting the guys through the same paces they trod in the original. It seems that the obvious challenge inherent with revisiting these miscreants is in the big difference between a misspent youth and a misspent middle-aged life. It is problem that the script lets go untackled. Instead, like some long-in-the-tooth grunge band rehearsing for a reunion tour, the boys plow right ahead onto their oafish crime and mischief, following the old words and melody and hoping nostalgia will do the rest.
Once back in his childhood bedroom (supposedly kept intact by his loving Mum) Rent Boy plays some old records and lifts the phonograph needle only a beat into “Lust For Life” (just one of many shout-outs to the original) but throughout the film the sped-up editing rhythms and blasts of semi-hip rock remain to let us know we’re watching a Brand Trainspotting movie (if we’re really to take the “T2” title as proclamation of franchise status). After Rent Boy has some punch-riddled reunions he’s joining the guys for a new scheme to re-pay his debt to them and now the scam is back on. You might remember Rent Boy’s “Choose Life” rant from the original? Again he goes back and does a middle-aged remake of it here because, you know, we may be old but we’re still angry! And the gang is still outside the law too, although you might feel less affection for 40-something credit card thieves and brothel owners than you did for 20-something smash-and-grabbers because at least maybe the kids will straighten themselves out before they turn into career sociopaths like these guys.
Admittedly, all these actors are fun to watch (Kelly MacDonald is back as Diane too, making the transition from jail-bait seductress to scolding legal councilor about as fun as it sounds) and occasionally there’s a smile to be had and yet the film also can’t help itself from going for some corny slapstick (see Spud get knocked-out in a boxing ring, falling backward stiff-backed like he’s in a Don Knotts/Tim Conway comedy) or giving the audience a good elbow in the ribs after an obvious gag. And who asked for a subplot about Begbie discovering Viagra? By the ending, we mainly feel Boyle’s condescension to the characters, after all, whatever middle-aged blues he shares with the characters, the director’s career trajectory can only be seen as an enviable success. Boyle might have felt an urge to return to scene of his youthful heady success but he’s refrained from bringing any hard-fought wisdom to share with his floundering working class characters. Not that he has to go full-on Mike Leigh but just laughing at the gang’s expense and watching Ewan dance to that very familiar old Iggy song somehow doesn’t seem enough to justify this return.