“Nostalgia – that’s what you’re here for,” says Sick Boy. “You’re a tourist in your own youth.” As are we, drawn back into the struggles of Danny Boyle’s skagboys 20 years on, visiting old friends we’re astonished to find still alive.
We’re not the only ones – Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) is a tourist now, too, having “chosen life” and whisked off to Amsterdam with the crew’s scam money in ’96. Begbie (Robert Carlyle) is in the slammer, Spud (Ewen Bremner) is failing rehab, and ‘Sick Boy’ Simon (Jonny Lee Miller) is running a dead-end pub with four regulars. But with Renton back, Simon’s not as willing to forgive and forget as he seems.
It’s best not to rewatch Trainspotting before jumping into T2, as Boyle’s return to the makeshift family of junkies that skyrocketed him to success carries with it the weight of those many years in between. His drunken tilts and coke-fuelled smash cuts are textbook by now; the thrill of recognising each backwards-glancing frame tempered by age. It’s impossible for him to make a film without at least a dozen breathtaking images, but he’s more exacting now, lingering over his history.
As for the boys, they’re off the skag now – mostly – scraping together what meagre existence they can. Simon’s angrier, less pretty boy and more thug, taking cues from the malevolent Begbie. And then there’s Spud, whom Bremner has always portrayed as a gangly fawn, too innocent for the world and the addiction that wracks him.
But in the absence of smack, new addictions fill the void. Renton’s jogging, Simon’s scheming and Begbie’s ripping off houses at night. Eventually, Spud turns to writing, becoming author avatar for Irvine Welsh and ret-conning the writer into the world. The hobbies fall aside as the third act reels in to deliver a king-hitting finale, itself arising from obsession.
For the viewer, the pure nostalgia hit is cut with grit. Inevitably, Renton revisits his iconic ‘Choose Life’ monologue that adorns uni student walls everywhere. (The phrase was apparently cribbed from a 1980s Scottish anti-drug campaign). It seems naff in the trailer, but by its end, it bubbles over into a fountain of bile, as 20 years of repressed rage finally erupts. The world has changed, even if the characters haven’t, and yet Boyle’s trainspotters still manage to function as ciphers in our time.
Any sequel is cut, stepped on – the first high was irreplicable, and Boyle knows it. T2 Trainspotting advertises itself as designer drug, but the needle is still used. Who needs a future when you have the past?