Movie review: Serviceable 'Trainspotting' sequel offers shot of closure, nostalgia

Simon (Jonny Lee Miller) and Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor)

Simon (Jonny Lee Miller) and Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) Jaap Buitendijk

Landmark movie sequels are tricky business. At best, you get The Godfather Part II. At worst you get some straight-to-video gong show or Grease 2.

With T2 Trainspotting we land somewhere in the middle. Refreshingly, this oddly titled sequel approaches source material themes with a new eye, rather than rehashing the pitfalls of heroin addiction covered so thoroughly in the first movie. And yet, T2 also calls into question whether there was enough meat in the script to warrant its production.

In line with real life, the sequel takes place 20 years after the initial film. The preceding decades have not been kind to our four favorite degenerate scumbags. Begbie’s serving a lengthy prison sentence. A coke-addled Sick Boy (now Simon) runs his aunt’s pub and blackmails rich adulterers among other hustles. Spud is still on heroin. And Renton, last seen robbing his mates of £16,000, is suffering from a heart problem and a dissatisfying life in Amsterdam.

Behold, the ravages of age!

If Trainspotting is about heroin and general assholery, its sequel is about the wasted potential and unending awfulness of that lifestyle. Everybody’s older, but nobody has really changed — still slaves to the same character defects that landed them these unhappy lives. Dr. Evil once told Austin Powers, “There’s nothing more pathetic than an aging hipster,” but perhaps balding cheats and thieves take the cake.

When Renton decides to return home, he sets in motion the usual shenanigans. Heroin is mostly out of the picture, but scheming and backstabbing are omnipresent as Simon and Renton try to start a brothel. Matters are complicated further when Begbie coincidentally escapes prison at the precise time of Renton’s arrival in Scotland.

Here, T2 takes on more standard dramatic plot elements. Whereas some characterized Trainspotting as a loose assemblage of strong character-driven vignettes, T2 feels like a more cohesive narrative — and that’s not necessarily a good thing. As Renton and Simon aim higher, as Begbie seeks his revenge, and as Spud begins writing down his memoirs, the film wanders a bit into conventional territory. Familiar tropes emerge — cons conned, the “I Should Write a Book About This” subplot — and some of the magic that made Trainspotting unique gets scuffed.

Director Danny Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge do explore this somewhat logical coda to Irvine Welsh’s original story as best they can. Trainspotting was criticized for glamorizing violence and drug use, and here Boyle and Hodge flesh out the delayed effects of those concepts. They relay the grief inherent in the whole experience, and any glamour present dissolves into wistfulness.

It’s certainly not sexy to be alone and miserable in your 40s, to have to look back on the deaths of your friends and children, or to still be addicted to heroin.

Yet Boyle toes a fine line: Yes, these are bad men who have done bad things, but diving deeper into their stories, Boyle accounts for the events that shaped their lives and offers a sympathetic viewpoint. The characters are not forgiven for their past or ongoing misdeeds, but in the end, we’re left with closure and an understanding built on nostalgia.

The question is whether or not you needed that ending.

T2 Trainspotting
Director: Danny Boyle
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Robert Carlyle, Jonny Lee Miller, Ewen Bremner
Theater: Now playing, Uptown Theatre