Why 'T2 Trainspotting' Doesn't Work

'Trainspotting' defined the historical moment in which it was made. How do you make a sequel to that?

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Jonny Lee Miller and Ewan McGregor in 'T2: Trainspotting.'
Jonny Lee Miller and Ewan McGregor in 'T2: Trainspotting.'Credit: Jaap Buitendijk

In “T2 Trainspotting,” British director Danny Boyle tries to provide fans of his 1996 film “Trainspotting” with another large dose of the same. But it doesn’t work. If this were not the sequel to what has become one of the best known British films of all time (and one of the most highly regarded, at least in its homeland), I would categorize it as a crime movie in which Boyle endeavors to camouflage the meager plot by means of an almost endless supply of stylistic stratagems.

But that description, accurate though it is, isn’t adequate. That’s because the movie is called “T2 Trainspotting,” because it draws its inspiration once more from a book by Irvine Welsh (“Porno,” 2002), because John Hodge again scripted, and because four of the original protagonists appear in the new film, too, played by the same actors.

With its frenetic style and narrative boldness, which confronted the viewer with ugliness and sleaze tempered with feeling and compassion, the original movie – about a group of young druggies in Edinburgh – defined the historical moment in which it was made, when Great Britain was bound in the shackles of conservatism and aspiring for change that didn’t come. How does one make a sequel to a picture whose worth is measured not by its plot, but by the way the plot caught the time in which it was fashioned? In other words, the sequel to “Trainspotting” would be convincing if Hodge and Boyle had tried to show that, despite the passage of 21 years, Britain’s problems remain as dramatic as they were then.

Of course, “T2 Trainspotting” was not meant to be an imitation of the first movie; on the contrary. Because the four young protagonists have morphed into men of 40-plus, three of whom are still hooked on hard drugs, it was reasonable to assume that the sequel would exude even more emotion than the original. It’s a pity, then, that on this count the new film fails almost completely.

“Trainspotting” was impelled by instinctual, driving energy, manifested in its style, its cinematography, the music that accompanied it and, above all, the passion that informed the presence and personality of its protagonists through the actors who played them. Boyle tries to reprise this in the sequel, but also purports to deal with issues of growing older and looming old age among a group of characters who never had a future.

The nervous energy Boyle tries to foist on his new film – aided by the jumpy camera, the soundtrack and all the stylistic maneuvers – feels forced. The effect, instead of drawing us into the movie, is to alienate us. As a result, the plot plays a far more crucial role in “T2 Trainspotting” than in the earlier movie. The filmmakers’ efforts to reprise the frenzied, frenetic and frantic essence of the original are futile. The sequel feels constrained and shows even more blatantly the thinness of the plot.

An average psychopath

Two intersecting events drive the story. Begbie (Robert Carlyle) is out to take revenge on Mark Renton, who at the end of the earlier film escaped with £16,000 that the group collected without sharing it with his three surviving friends. Begbie escapes from jail just as Renton (Ewan McGregor) – the only one of the four who has kicked the drug habit (up to a certain point, at least) – returns to Edinburgh from Amsterdam, where he got married and has just divorced his wife. Back in Scotland, Renton renews his ties with Simon (Jonny Lee Miller), who was called “Sick Boy” in the first movie but now wants to be called by his real name.

Despite the grudge he holds against Renton, Simon is ready to make him a partner in his plan to turn an abandoned pub into a brothel. To execute the project, Simon is aided by a woman of Bulgarian origin named Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova), his partner – who is attracted to Renton. Rounding out the group is Spud (Ewen Bremner), who is as lost and weird as he was in the first movie, although now he also has literary aspirations, which he fulfills in his eccentric way.

The crux of the plot involves the pursuit of Renton by Begbie, who comes across as an average psychopath from an average crime movie. But this aspect of the plot isn’t very interesting, both because it’s not developed well and because the narrative structure obviates any meaningful connection betweenBegbie and Renton. Far more successful is the portrayal of the fitful relations between Simon and Renton – it contains no great depth, but at least suggests complexity in the interplay between suspicion, rivalry and friendship.

At times, Boyle tries to locate the events in their contemporary historical context – a case in point is an enthusiastic speech that Renton delivers (well executed by McGregor) – but this feels like an artificial implant. Another example is Simon and Renton’s attempt to obtain funding for their project from a trans-European body that finances small businesses (as the movie was made before Brexit, the scene takes on heightened meaning). However, these elements are not enough to recreate the zeitgeist that was so potent in the earlier movie and helped engrave it deeply in the viewer’s consciousness.

Besides the agitated, multi-angled camerawork and the rapid-fire, jumpy editing, “T2 Trainspotting” is punctuated by short flashbacks to the earlier film and a host of other visual inventions. Some of them are effective – they kept my gaze fixed firmly on the screen even when the plot developments left me largely indifferent – but others seem disconnected from the movie.

Yet, I can’t term the viewing experience a disappointment. The truth is that Boyle has never been able to reprise the quality and boldness he showed in his first two movies, “Shallow Grave” in 1994, followed by “Trainspotting.” I wasn’t especially impressed by his Oscar-winning “Slumdog Millionaire,” either. His only film since the first two that I found of some interest is “127 Hours” (2010). So his new picture didn’t come as a surprise in that regard. Nevertheless, I didn’t expect that the sequel to his best work would impart a feeling of blandness, nor did I imagine that the screenwriter, Hodge, would include in the movie a sentimental scene on which both he and Boyle would have heaped scorn in their younger days.