Over the last 10 years we’ve seen many “long time later” sequels. They’re often comedies which fall flat like Anchorman 2, Zoolander 2 or Bad Santa 2. Only earlier this week we had “XxX: The Return of Xander Cage” 12 years after the previous film in the franchise. These movies usually fail relying too much on decade old references or nostalgia alone. Rarely do we see long time later sequels to films which aren’t action or comedy which is a pity because I think it’s in these other stories where the passage of time could be much more relevant.
“T2: Trainspotting” is the 20 year later follow up to the 1996 cult hit Trainspotting. When we left Renton (Ewan McGregor) he had betrayed his so called friends Sick Boy (Johnny Lee Miller), Spud (Ewen Bremner) & the psychotic Begbie (Robert Carlyle). He had stolen the £16,000 they had just made from a drug deal he was forced into and aimed to finally remove himself from the environment which led to his heroin addiction and would consume him otherwise. Years later pushing 50 and with nowhere else to call home he has returned to make amends with his less psychotic friends and try to find some semblance of a life to live. Coincidentally Begbie has just escaped from prison and is looking to do the same, it’s only a matter of time before his 20 year grudge against Renton catches up to him.
It was several years after its release that I was finally able to watch the original Trainspotting, I do remember some of the controversy surrounding it however. It was inevitably seen by some as glamorising heroin addiction which was of course ridiculous while at the same time it wasn’t on the level of some anti-drug PSA. To me the film was more about the toxic environment which Renton inhabited than the addiction itself. The film’s most pitiful characters were those who were total slaves to their addiction while the most repulsive character in the entire story was undoubtedly Begbie who would never touch the stuff.
This new film again rather than focusing really at all on drug addiction deals more with themes of midlife crisis and a feeling of lack of achievement. The original movie (and I’ll be referring back to the original film a lot this sequel being so tied to it as it is) ended with Renton “choosing life” and possibly being able to lead a fulfilling life finally escaping the culture which was holding him down. T2 is more about the idea of what if he didn’t go on to great things? If he was middle aged and had nothing to show for it with 30-40 more years to live, what would he do with them. To say nothing of junkie Spud, pimp & blackmailing Sick Boy and the infamous Begbie dealing with similar mid life crises of their own.
It’s an interesting direction to take the story and coming back to see these characters who we remember from 2 decades ago in a completely different light really makes the movie. The movie is in a unique position to evoke legitimate feelings of nostalgia from the audience familiar with its predecessor. Something which similarly made Toy Story 3 so beloved, VERY different of a movie as that may be.
The film’s biggest problem however also stems from the time which has passed and the success of the original movie. Trainspotting really is a classic. It’s soundtrack was amazing and there was something just so real and organic about it. The actor’s chemistry with each other and Danny Boyle’s vision and style made it the cult classic it is today and was instrumental in skyrocketing almost everyone involved to stardom.
This film by comparison feels very Hollywood. It no longer has that same fresh feeling and generally seems far to much like a studio product. The comedy for example in the original was much more situational and natural, here it’s almost always: set up, punchline, pause for laughter. A bar fight between Sick Boy & Renton upon their reunion takes time out to pause and focus on an old man they’re fighting around who’s completely nonplused by the whole event. It’s a very “isn’t this funny?” moment.
Another would be Renton’s “choose life” monologue. In the original film it’s the opening and closing voice over from an omnipotent narrator. In this film it’s brought up awkwardly and somebody asks him to explain it over dinner. He then gives the same type of speech only in dialogue this time and not at one point does it feel like anything natural, made worse by the fact it’s obviously been redubbed by McGregor later on for whatever reason. These are just examples but it’s representative of how forced and scripted the whole thing felt at times.
I think like Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull the problem is even if you largely have the same crew working on your film. (Same actors, same writer, same director) the issue is that those people may be very different filmmakers than they were 20 years ago. Danny Boyle is a veteran filmmaker and Oscar winner now so the film doesn’t have that independent, rough feel of 2 decades ago.
The actors are another issue. While it seems pedantic it was hard to see them in the same believable light that I did in the first movie due to their immense success. They were unknowns in 1996, now Renton is Obi Wan Kenobi, Sick Boy stars on American television as Sherlock Holmes in Elementary and Begbie was a Bond villain. While the actors still have great chemistry it was hard to see it as believable that they’d had 20 years of doing nothing when in reality they’ve almost all had 20 years of incredible successful careers as actors perhaps with the exception of Ewen Bremner which is probably why he was most believable in the role.
Again I know “it’s called acting” but there’s a reason Mickey Rourke worked so well in The Wrestler, Eminem was amazing in 8 Mile or Michael Keaton was perfect casting for Birdman. Cast Tom Hanks in the role of an out of work actor and see how believable it is.
T2 Trainspotting is definitely better than almost every other long term sequel of recent memory and we’re not likely to see many other films like this. Sadly though it’s far from living up to being as iconic as the original film in any way and feels more like something which could have been a short movie rather than a feature film. Still I think it’s a movie for fans alone as it doesn’t really have much going for it otherwise to make it stand up on its own.