© Film 4 / Creative Scotland / DNA Films
Finally, nearly five months after it went on cinematic release in the UK and just before it goes on sale there on DVD, I’ve been able to catch up with Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting 2 in Sri Lanka.
It is, of course, the long-awaited sequel to Boyle’s Trainspotting (1996), which somehow caught the zeitgeist of mid-1990s Britain, obsessed with Britpop and all things Cool Britannia. How long ago that seems now…
To be honest, it annoyed me that the original Trainspotting got lumped in with the Britpop / Cool Britannia thing, even if the filmmakers opportunistically loaded its soundtrack with music by bands of the time such as Pulp, Sleeper, Elastica, Leftfield and Underworld. (Ironically, the song that became the film’s signature tune, Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life, had nothing to do with 1990s Britain.)
To me Trainspotting sprang from an earlier, darker and less glamorous era than the one of Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde shark, Geri Halliwell’s Union Jack dress and Blur-versus-Oasis – namely, the mid-to-late 1980s, when a boom in heroin use and a subsequent, resultant HIV / AIDS epidemic in Edinburgh led to the city being dubbed ‘the AIDS capital of Europe’. This became material for the book that inspired the film, Irvine Welsh’s novel Trainspotting (1993), which is an altogether bleaker and rougher-edged work than Boyle’s cinematic version. Though of course the film isn’t without its bleak or rough-edged moments either. The worst toilet in Scotland, anyone?
Not that I’m complaining. I think both Trainspotting the book and Trainspotting the movie are great and are classics in their respective fields, 1990s Scottish literature and 1990s British cinema. So here’s what I thought of the new movie. A word of warning – there will be spoilers ahead.
Trainspotting 2 also has its roots in an Irvine Welsh book, 2003’s Porno. This reunited the four main characters of Trainspotting, Renton, Sick Boy, Spud and Begbie, who in the original film were memorably played by Ewan McGregor, Johnny Lee Miller, Ewen Bremner and Robert Carlyle – actors who, in various stages of menopausal gnarliness, are also excellent in the sequel. Porno was about their efforts to illegally raise money to fund a blockbuster porn movie called Seven Rides for Seven Brothers, which Sick Boy intended to film in the back rooms of the pub he’d just inherited from an aunt. Its sub-plots included Spud trying to escape his heroin addiction by writing a book and a just-out-of-prison Begbie vowing to get bloody revenge on Renton, who at the end of Trainspotting (book and film) had run off with the all the money they’d made on a drugs deal.
Trainspotting 2 scriptwriter John Hodge retains these basic elements from Porno, but determinedly does his own thing with them. Sick Boy owns a pub, but instead of wanting to shoot a porn movie on the premises he wants to turn it into a bordello. Begbie breaks out of prison – in the novel he’s simply released – and first crosses paths with the hated Renton halfway through the movie. This differs from the book, where Renton and Begbie’s first and last confrontation is saved for the climax. And Spud, who in the book was attempting a write a history of his hometown Leith, here decides to use his past adventures, good and bad (though mostly bad), as the basis for a novel. When you see him writing its opening line – “The sweat wis lashing oafay Sick Boy” – you realise what he’s doing. He’s writing the original novel of Trainspotting.
I almost expected Trainspotting 2 to end with Spud’s completed manuscript falling through a time warp and ending up in 1993, where it arrives in the hands of Irvine Welsh, who sneakily passes it off as his own work. Alas, that doesn’t happen.
One element of Porno that I’d expected Hodge and Boyle to dump, because it’d be too mysterious for cinema audiences who weren’t Scottish or Irish, surprisingly turns up in Trainspotting 2. That’s the scam perpetrated by Renton and Sick Boy, whereby they break into and loot the bank accounts of various West-of-Scotland / Loyalist / anti-Catholic Glasgow Rangers supporters because they know what the four-number pin-codes are likely to be: 1690, the year of the Battle of the Boyne, when King William of Orange (King Billy to his fans) defeated the Catholic forces of James II and saved the countries of Britain for Protestantism.
In Trainspotting 2 this is compressed into a single sequence where Renton and Sick Boy sneak into a Rangers club in Glasgow to steal bank cards. When their presence is noticed and they’re asked to entertain the punters with a song, they have to improvise like crazy to save their hides – and if you’re familiar with the culture that Boyle, Hodge and co. are poking fun at, the result is hilarious. In fact, I don’t expect to see a funnier scene in a film this year.
The great advantage that Trainspotting 2 has over the book Porno is timing. Taking place in the early noughties, Porno’s characters were starting to realise that they wouldn’t stay young and reckless forever; but they could still act that way. Set more than a dozen years later, Trainspotting 2 – whose making was delayed for a long time because of a rift between Boyle and Ewan McGregor – sees Renton, Sick Boy, Spud and Begbie firmly in the throes of middle age and reacting to it, for the most part, badly.
Renton and Sick Boy, when pissed and stoned, tend to retreat into a rosy, nostalgia-distorted version of their pasts where everything was, you know, better. (This smartly allows Boyle and Hodge to duck the accusation that they’ve made Trainspotting 2 out of nostalgia for the 1990s. No, they can argue, they’ve made a movie about nostalgia.) It’s telling that in one scene they start obsessing about the legendary but ill-fated Northern Irish footballer George Best. When the 40-something Renton recounts the famous ‘George, where did it all go wrong?’ anecdote, it seems he’s rewriting history for his own comfort. No, he’s arguing, Best didn’t lose it as was commonly assumed. He still had it – just as Renton himself believes he still has it.
Spud relates rather better to the past and his lost youth – he uses them creatively, as material for his writing. Begbie, a psychopathic dinosaur, seems unable to grasp the concept of time, let alone the fact that it changes. But even he’s starting to notice that he’s no longer the force he once was, something emphasised by a scene where he nicks a packet of Viagra.
© Film 4 / Creative Scotland / DNA Films
One difference between Trainspotting and Trainspotting 2 is that the new film makes much more of its Edinburgh setting. The Royal Mile, the Grassmarket, the Cowgate, Cockburn Street, Harvey Nichols, the Scottish Parliament, the tram system, the Forth Road Bridge and Salisbury Crags are all used to good visual effect and even Edinburgh Bargain Stores and Edinburgh Castle Terrace Car Park look sexy during the movie’s comic and action set-pieces. Indeed, the Scottish capital has rarely appeared so glamorous and exciting. The days when ultra-Conservative Edinburgh councillor Moira Knox used to fulminate against Irvine Welsh and the Trainspotting phenomenon for giving the city a bad name are long gone.
Like James Cameron’s Terminator 2 (1991) – a sequel with which it shares an abbreviated nickname, T2 – Trainspotting 2 is immensely enjoyable but doesn’t quite reach the heights of the original. It can’t reach them. The original Trainspotting (like 1984’s The Terminator) was iconically of its time and place and the ideas driving it, by virtue of being fresh and new, gave it a momentum that any follow-up simply can’t manage. Nonetheless, Boyle and Hodge deserve kudos for resisting the temptation to just rehash the original and for exploring new territory with the characters, even if that territory is more ruminative and melancholic and less cinematically in-your-face exciting.
Trainspotting 2 isn’t the classic that its predecessor was, then, but it’s as good a sequel as I could’ve hoped for. I think the adventures of Renton, Sick Boy, Spud and Begbie should end here, though. Just as the Terminator franchise ran out of steam after the second movie, I fear another entry in the Trainspotting franchise would be a sequel too far. Yes, a Trainspotting 3: Rise of the Machines would probably be shite.
© Film 4 / Creative Scotland / DNA Films