Confession: I was one of those guys.
I saw “Trainspotting” five times in the theater. I took myself. I took my girlfriend. I took two different roommates. A friend and I saw it for the second or third time each. His reaction: “I am not sure I could take much more movie.” Yes, this.
It was the music that did it — I couldn’t get over the music supervision. Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” as Renton runs down the street. Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” as Renton sinks into the floor, overdose overtaking him. Pulp’s “Mile End” in the hall of the crappy flat. New Order’s ’87 remix of “Temptation” vaguely centering the film as set in the late 1980s. Underworld’s “Born Slippy” making your heart race as Renton steals the money. Like many, many people of my generation, I was, not to put too fine a point on it, a bit addicted.
With every frame of “T2 Trainspotting,” which was the secret screening at this year’s South by Southwest, you know that director Danny Boyle knows this. This couldn’t be a cash grab; the original meant too much to too many people. If they were going to do this, it had to mean something.
Which it does.
We catch up with our antiheroes quickly. Begbie (Robert Carlyle) is in prison, pinched for the deal that went down 20 years ago. Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), now going by his given name Simon, is running a pub and side-lining as a pimp and blackmailer. Spud (Ewen Bremner, wonderful as always) is still a mess, a junkie on and off for decades. And Renton (Ewan McGregor) is in Amsterdam, jogging on a treadmill when he hits the floor, hard. It is the sprawl of a man who has just had a coronary event, the sort that makes one take stock a bit.
So it’s time for Renton to visit a gentrified Edinburgh for the first time since he absconded with 16,000 quid that he and his cohorts were supposed to split four ways.
He stops off to visit his da (he missed his mother’s funeral, which is never a great look). We see him in his old room, still covered in trains. He drops the needle on a record for a half-second (“WHOMP-B-“) then lifts it again. We know it’s “Lust for Life,” we know it would be both cliche and too heavy to break it out now. It’s all we needed to hear.
A plot comes together — after all, the moment Begbie gets out of prison, he is going to be pretty angry. And absolutely nobody is all that thrilled with Renton. He did, after all, steal from his best friends. But now that we’re together, isn’t opening a brothel — um, a sauna — a good idea? What could go wrong?
But none of these men have matured, not one. It’s not even a question of reverting to your former self when you are around old pals — Renton’s been gone for years and he is the same guy who thinks he knows more than he actually does. No wonder Simon and Renton throw down.
No wonder Spud, poor Spud, the sort of who looks at old photos of the old crew, screams at him about the money Renton left him, which promptly went into his arm: “You ruined my life!”
No wonder they end up screaming over Tommy, dead of AIDS-related complications 20 years ago.
No wonder Renton and Simon end up mansplaining George Best to one of Simon’s hookers before Renton beds her, because of course he does. No matter how much we love them, these men are pathetic.
Boyle knows that he cannot replicate the original’s zeitgeist-capture. It simply couldn’t happen. So he doesn’t flinch from it, opting to use some of the same techniques to tell a deeper story of — as the director put it after the screening — how badly men age (emotionally, not physically, though it should be noted that while the male leads have definitely put on a few years, Kelly McDonald, the only one of the old crew who became an actual adult, does not seem to have aged a day).
Fragments are used as memories — we see two seconds of the first movie here, a second there. The music cues, so crucial to the original, are dealt with here cannily — a moment from a song from the original here, a remix there. This one has an actual score, which the original did not — it was all needle-drop pop song cues. This fits: We are older, they are older, our relationship to that music is different.
As one character literally says, “Nostalgia, that’s why you’re here.” Yes, sure. But this isn’t a retread. Everyone is older, nobody is wiser. Men aging badly, indeed.