At least once in our lives we’ll be stricken with a certain trepidation about how the present matches up with memories of the past. It can be an old flame that’s been rekindled over years; the reunion of a favourite band, the comeback of a sports idol, an attempt of ours to somehow recapture past glories, to see if we still have it. Sometimes lightning can strike again, but more often than not we’re vaguely unsatisfied by version 2.0, and we begin to doubt ourselves. Was the original time around really that good? Are those memories seen through the rose coloured lenses of nostalgia? There’s only one way to find out, though.
This is how I choose to open my review of Trainspotting 2, because it’s not hyperbole to state for the record that the original changed my life in a deep and profound way. This review is my most personal because of that – and what follows isn’t a story of melancholy or wistful, misty-eyed moments. Also, it’s not a story of how I beat my heroin addiction thanks to Mark Renton. But it is somewhere between, and I won’t keep you too long.
In 1996, I had lived here in the US for around 5 years. After getting my green card to work, and a humiliating requirement to attain a GED, because I was educated in the UK, I had been working for around 4 and a half years. We had just bought our first house and my daughter was two and a half years old. I was halfway through what would be the last year in my employment as CFO of a small electronics manufacturer (I accepted a similar position at an after-market autoparts company later that year). I had a subscription to Entertainment Weekly, and I read with interest, of a small Scottish movie called Trainspotting that was set to go on limited release in the US that summer. It never would come to the Quad Cities, but I kept my eye out for it, and lo and behold, in July of 1996 it was set to open in Iowa City, which is mostly a campus town for the University of Iowa. Back up a little here. Also, by the time 1996 had rolled around, I was experiencing something of an identity crisis. I’d lost contact with many of my good friends from Scotland, I had allowed an opportunity to draw a zombie comic for Dark Horse lapse, and my own drawing skills began to atrophy. I had completed two novels within the space of 5 years, and so I had made the transition from art to writing, and living in my head while I tried to develop my writing skills. A bad effect of that was recounting all of the times I had been told to slow down while speaking, to pronounce better. I had grown tired of listening to Americans tell me they couldn’t understand my accent, and by the summer of 1996 I felt at a crossroads in my life. Was it time to submerge myself fully in a culture that I enjoyed, but kept at arm’s length? Time to put my past self behind me and fully embrace the country and its people?
So my wife and I made the 45 minute drive to Iowa City (a place that would gain special significance later in life), and we sat in the darkened cinema. I didn’t know what to expect, really. I was simply going to see a critically acclaimed movie from my home country. It wasn’t long into the movie that it changed my life. I sat transfixed watching the low budget, washed out colour palette, the swearing, the glorious swearing. The violence. It was a movie that wasn’t just Scottish, it was unashamedly Scottish, and what a soundtrack! I knew almost every song from it, and those I didn’t – Born Slippy by Underworld, Deep Blue Day by Brian Eno – became instant favourites. I couldn’t identify with any of the characters, but what I could understand was that they were Scottish. I was Scottish. It struck me. I wasn’t American, I was Scottish, and no matter how much longer I would live on this side of the Atlantic, I would be damned if I was going to change just because people couldn’t understand exactly everything I was saying. I wasn’t going to become used to Americans. No, Americans were going to have to get used to me. That is the absolute truth of the revelation that struck me that day in 1996. I emerged from the darkness reborn in a way and I told my wife just what I’ve told you, and I stuck to my word. I was no longer flailing, I had my identity back, and I never did let go of it since. Here’s the trailer for the original.
Over the years, the movie has remained a huge part of the history of my life. Even though Mulholland Drive became my all time fabourite movie in 2001, Trainspotting has remained a close second, and maybe it’s never likely to fall any further than that. Years came and went, I got older, but I did not change who I was. I am still the man who walked out of that Iowa City cinema.
A couple of years ago, I read of the renewed efforts to try to make a sequel, based, at least in part on Irvine Welsh’s follow up to Trainspotting, Porno – a book I had attempted to read numerous times, but couldn’t get past the first few chapters. It seemed that it would never happen, with one of the big reasons being Ewan McGregor’s falling out with director Danny Boyle over casting Leonardo DiCaprio ahead of him in The Beach.
But then, in 2015, it was actually happening. I watched the trailer in November 2016, and waited with excitement, and that trepidation I mentioned earlier. Fast forward to March 24th. I traveled to LA to meet an old friend of mine from Scotland, and hang out with Chad Crawford Kinkle, the writer and director of a neat little horror movie called Jug Face. We all met up at the Los Feliz 3 Vintage Theater in Silver Lake, and by then, my heart had begun to beat rapidly, compressing the near 21 years of my life since 1996 down into a singularity of sorts. Tickets bought, I sat with my friends in the darkness, and my mind was racing. Don’t suck, don’t suck, don’t suck.
Thanks for staying with me so far – I appreciate your patience. All ready? Here we go!
Trainspotting 2 tells the story of Mark Renton’s return to Scotland, two decades after double crossing his pals and moving to Amsterdam. Feeling suddenly isolated, and now with a health concern, he first meets Spud (Ewan Bremner), then Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller, lately of TV’s Elementary). Old grudges erupt on the surface, and then, as things threaten to calm down, the fourth member, Begbie (Robert Carlyle) appears in the story. When he returns to life outside of prison, revenge against Renton, and a life of crime with estranged, college-headed son is foremost on his mind. Also in the mix is a new cast addition, Veronika, a Bulgarian call girl played by Anjela Nedyalkova. She is helping Sick Boy blackmail various public figures in order to raise money to build a brothel (in Porno, the plan is to raise money to film a porn movie). It doesn’t take long for Renton, Sick Boy and Spud to settle into a tense cease fire, but inevitably, the threatening figure of Begbie circles ever closer, until the inevitable moment when all orbits collide.
This is essentially the plot of the movie. I’ve left out the ending, of course, because you’ll need to see that for yourself. The big question here, given everything that’s gone before in this mini autobiography, is did I like it? Did it come close to the original? The answer is a sad no. It never could come close, really. I admit, I approached the experience with some rose-tinted memories, but I’ve changed a lot when viewing movies. I’m more objective about them these days, less inclined to be moved in ways that were emotionally more available to me years ago. Part of that is learning the craft of screenwriting, and storytelling, part of that is trying to analyze structure, theme, and character, and part of it is just growing older. Watching Trainspotting 2, I no longer felt that strong interest in the characters the way I had in 1996, and when the story gets going, it just didn’t feel that deep to me. Where the original had a livewire kinetic energy that crackled along, and an amazing sense of anarchy that, looking back, now makes me think of the same qualities in A Clockwork Orange.
It’s almost inevitable that one of the primary themes of Trainspotting 2 is that emotional, nostalgic wistfulness of the past colliding with the present after a long period of time. The first half of the movie is all about reunions, of digging up the pain of the past, and somehow finding equilibrium in the present. Of the characters, only Renton has changed much – Spud is still a dim junkie, Sick Boy is still a cynical manipulator, Begbie still a violent thug. Only Renton has reached escape velocity, but is somehow compelled to return not just to Britain, not just to Scotland, but to seek out the very people who would surely vilify him for his actions 20 years before. I didn’t completely buy this motivation, not after that long a gap. It felt like just another movie cliché, and yeah, the movie needed this to happen for there to be a sequel, but I just felt that this particular plot mechanism was more about getting the old gang back together than making a lot of sense. I can’t really buy into the notion that people don’t change fundamentally over two decades, and without the movie trying to say something about personal stagnation, it feels like a veneer – it’s little more than a reunion movie, and never tries reaching past that.
When Renton eventually gets roped into Sick Boy’s plot, the story feels greatly contrived. With seemingly no effort whatsoever, they’re both able to rise above their station and receive a grant for £100K from the local government in order to build the massage parlour/brothel of their dreams (they pitch a nostalgic revitalization project), but they remain cagey and untrusting of each other, just like before. Spud actually becomes the sympathetic focus of the movie, the moral compass of a sort, though oddly he remains apart from Renton and Sick Boy until after the second half of the movie. I suppose it’s a feelgood thing here – Spud was always the pathetic, weak member, and this story finally gives him the strength of character that he maybe deserved first time around. Putting him beside the other three, he becomes the one you want to succeed, and Renton strangely feels relegated here.
Like the original, Francis Begbie is the main villain of the piece, but he too succumbs to the undercurrent of sentimentality that runs through much of the movie. I wondered, is it inevitable that a sequel this far removed in time from the original contain so much sentimentality, or is it just a lazy choice on the part of the moviemakers, that they want to give us the kind of movie they think we want? I choose the latter. It disappointed me that so much time was spent reliving the past by the characters. It isn’t like we don’t do it – how often do we meet old friends and wax nostalgic about the old days? I don’t do it much myself, but it isn’t like I haven’t done it ever. But for a sequel to the kind of movie Trainspotting is, sentimentality is the safe choice. It doesn’t do the sequel proud, it doesn’t try to be as exciting or different or anarchic as the original, it’s just a movie about reunions, connected by motivations that don’t feel wholly organic – in short, it feels like a sequel, when it should feel like a movie in its own right. You can’t watch Trainspotting 2 without first seeing the first.
Two specific things I did not like about the movie – the sentimentality forces flashback scenes that show all four characters as young boys growing up together. It felt like I was being bludgeoned by the need to drive home that these are four lifelong friends. The plot doesn’t hinge on that at all, especially given that the psychic connective tissue between them is strained throughout, and that Begbie, far from the fourth musketeer, is as despicable to those same friends as he is to everyone. One scene where he atones is decidedly Un-Begbie and feels extremely forced, especially when he appears to not have learned any lessons at all when his plotline eventually converges with that of the other three. The other thing I did not like AT ALL is the soundtrack. None of the music was familiar to me, and I can’t say I liked any of it. In the original, the soundtrack (generally considered one of the best) seemed to catch the zeitgeist of contemporary Scotland. The middle of a decade is that tipping point when the prior decade still has a hold of those old enough to remember, and be influenced by it, and the soundtrack was as important part of the movie as the writing and acting – in Trainspotting 2, the music feels simultaneously forced and incidental.
An aspect I did enjoy is the insertion of key moments from the original at judicial times throughout the sequel – not brilliant moviemaking from a past Oscar winning director, and more of a nod to fans of the original than any kid of stylistic choice, but I liked that parsed connectivity, and thought they were edited into the movie well. A flashback sequence involving a tramp in an abandoned train station is composed of live action with actors playing the 1996 versions, and the creative use of close ups from the earlier movie, and shot with a dreamlike quality. It’s not a standout scene, but I liked it.
When the movie was over, the three of us sat through the credits, and I was lost in my thoughts, looking ahead to what I’d say in this review, knowing that I’d take far too much time talking about the importance of the original to my life, but aware that it was unavoidable. For those of you who made it straight through, I hope you think it was a story worth telling.
I’m a little sad that the sequel didn’t at any point come close to the original, but I don’t see how it could have. Even if the entire production felt like a truly honest attempt to tell a story about these characters, I may not have responded to it the way that someone with a less intense attachment to the original would have. Perhaps I’m grateful for that – if Trainspotting 2 had been a great movie in its own right, I may not have had the ability to recognize it.
© Andrew Hope 2017