Sunday, April 9, 2017

You Can’t Go Home Again: T2 Trainspotting

Ewen Bremner, Ewan McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller and Robert Carlyle in T2 Trainspotting.

Note: the following post contains spoilers.

Contrary to my usual inclination when it comes to sequels, I had high hopes for T2 Trainspotting. That’s mainly because all the folks who were involved in the original brilliant and audacious Trainspotting (1996), one of the best films of the 90s, were back for the sequel, which, like the first movie, is based on an Irvine Welsh novel, Porno. (Porno is Welsh's 2002 sequel to his 1993 novel Trainspotting.) Once again director Danny Boyle, screenwriter John Hodge and the quartet of actors who played a group of Scottish heroin addicts and their pals in the 80s  Ewen Bremner (Spud), Ewan McGregor (Renton), Jonny Lee Miller (Sick Boy) and Robert Carlyle (Begbie) – were to be on screen, twenty years later in real life and in the movie. Their return offered hope that lightning would strike twice and the film would match or at least come close to replicating the unique nature of the original. But T2, though it tries gamely to fashion something new out of old characters, falls flat, rendering what might have been a master stroke, an indelible sequel, into something more conventional, sedate and, ultimately, forgettable.

The film does begin promisingly with Renton  who, when we last saw him, had just absconded with £16,000 of drug money in London, ripping off his three buddies in the process  quietly returning from Amsterdam to Edinburgh, where most of Trainspotting’s action took place. Spud is still troubled and struggling with his heroin addition; Sick Boy, who’s switched to cocaine, is scheming with a Bulgarian woman, Veronika (a dull Anjela Nedyalkova), setting up johns for blackmail; and psychopathic Begbie, 20 years after his imminent arrest in Trainspotting, is still in jail and nursing a grudge against Renton for stealing his share of the loot. Renton’s return, for unknown reasons, sets in motion a series of actions that brings the foursome back together with unexpected (and some expected) results. That’s all well and fine as plot goes, but the movie doesn’t really go anywhere. Unlike Trainspotting, which revolutionized our perceptions of drug use, Scottish realities and even views of existence, T2 never builds up a head of cinematic steam, much less make any grand and eloquent statements. Admittedly, it would have been difficult to duplicate the original’s superior ability, rare for any movie, to switch on a dime from comedy to tragedy and back again without trivializing the material or collapsing into incoherence. But T2 doesn’t even endeavour to scale that creative mountain.

Simply put, neither the movie’s characterizations nor its observations add anything to the original. Once you find out that Begbie has a wife and son, whom he cannot relate to – the lad wants to study hotel management while Begbie, after escaping prison, simply wants the boy to join him in break-and-enters – you don’t learn much more that is of interest about the guy. He was funnier as a quasi-cartoon lunatic in Trainspotting. Sick Boy, for his part, is the same angry (now older) man from the first movie and Spud is his usual screwed-up but sweetly pathetic self, though the movie does try to out him as a closeted poetic writer, which I didn’t buy for a second. (It’s Renton, after all, the narrator of Trainspotting, who was the well-spoken, perceptive observer of the goings on around him.) As for Renton, McGregor’s protagonist is oddly opaque in T2; I couldn’t fathom what we were supposed to make of him. I’m not sure Hodge and Boyle did, either.

Jonny Lee Miller, Ewan McGregor and Anjela Nedyalkova in T2 Trainspotting. (Photo: Jaap Buitendijk)

One of Trainspotting’s chief virtues was its smart take on Scotland and its historically fraught relationship to England, which continues post-Brexit. As Renton put it, “Some hate the English. I don't. They're just wankers. We, on the other hand, are colonized by wankers.” That was very funny, as was Sick Boy’s ongoing wry commentary about Sean Connery’s James Bond outings and his imitation of the Scottish-born actor, a sad indicator of a beaten-down place which had few exports to the outside world that it could boast about. In T2, all that is made of the current Scottish reality is that it’s more multicultural than it used to be and there are an awful lot of CCTV cameras monitoring everybody’s moves. Seriously, that’s all you get here. Oh, there is one scene where Renton and Sick Boy rip off patrons in a public lodge and avoid capture by singing an anti-Catholic ditty about the famous 1690 Battle of the Boyne, which pitted Protestant against Catholic in Ireland. It has the distinction of being what no single scene in Trainspotting ever was – obvious. (The film’s new Connery reference is subtler, so much so that I missed it entirely. Many filmgoers, I suspect, will too.) As for the original’s ballsy and explicit view of drug addiction and its startling honesty in admitting that drug addicts could actually get pleasure from injecting heroin – a truth about any addiction but not often stated in any medium and one that Trainspotting acknowledged without glamourizing drug use – T2 doesn’t really deal with drugs at all, except as a mild rebuke to Sick Boy’s overindulgence in coke and sadness at Spud’s not being able to kick horse. That’s not particularly illuminating or compelling.

Everything, in fact, that was remarkable about the original is lacklustre in its presentation here. T2’s soundtrack is a pale rendition of the terrific one from Trainspotting, with Blondie’s’ "Dreaming" and Queen’s "Radio Ga Ga" (not my favourite Queen track) among its best-known tunes. There is an amusing use of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s "Relax" but it’s just a quick joke. And The Prodigy’s remix of Iggy Pop’s immortal "Lust for Life," so skillfully used in the original, is merely flat. As for the inevitable update of Renton’s Choose Life diatribe, spat out at the beginning of Trainspotting, a devastating, angry indictment of Western consumerism and complacency, Renton’s riff in T2, prompted by Veronika’s prodding, is merely mild. So is the movie’s visual style, dispensing with most of Trainspotting’s fascinating surrealism and jaggedly edited scenes in favour of a mostly straight-ahead, unimaginative portrait. When Renton and Sick Boy pitch a plan to get city funding for their proposed brothel located in a historic part of Edinburgh, which they disguise as a spa, the movie pretty much falls into territory inhabited by movies like The Full Monty  an entertaining film that I like, but not a particularly adventurous one, which can also be said for T2. Anthony Dod Mantle, who did the cinematography for T2 – replacing Trainspotting’s Brian Tufano – is an uneven talent, with credits ranging from the crummy-looking Dogme 95 movies The Celebration (Festen) and Julien Donkey-Boy to the decent filming evident in Boyle's 27 Hours and Slumdog Millionaire. Regrettably, T2 is closer to the former. (Trainspotting looked great.) Incidentally, the fact that the men receive £100,000 from the EU for their proposal, without any references backing them or a history of endeavours like this, stretches credibility.

Messers Doyle and Hodge also seem to have forgotten that Trainspotting actually took place in the mid-80s, even though the movie was released in 1996, so updating it 20 years would situate it circa 2005-6, thus rendering T2’s references to Snapchat and Instagram as just plain wrong since they’re each less than a decade old. In the end (and none of this is the cast’s fault, as they do their best) it is my sense that, as there is now a Hollywood studio (Tri-Star Pictures) behind the movie – the original was independently made  and four producers involved instead of just the one (Andrew Macdonald) from Trainspotting  the movie, no doubt now also a much more expensive proposition, suffers both from a studio’s risk-averse mentality and an excessive desire to please fans of the original while also drawing in newbies who know nothing of what came before. (In addition to Macdonald, Boyle now assumes producer duties.) That makes it a much more calculated effort than the original  Doyle, Hodge and Macdonald admit on the DVD of Trainspotting that they did not anticipate any success with the film outside of the U.K. – and explains the overuse of references to the first movie. Occasionally they’re nicely done, as when Renton’s glance at a grungy toilet prompts a quick one-second reminder of the toilet in Trainspotting’s infamous suppository sequence, but usually they just drag the film down. Besides, the lads were under the influence of drugs or drink during much of Trainspotting so they couldn’t possibly remember all that they did. Similarly, the predictable cameo by Kelly Macdonald (sexually precocious schoolgirl Diane in Trainspotting) doesn’t really work all that well nor is it really necessary. (It’d be much more interesting if she didn’t show up, allowing the audience to wonder what ever happened to her. People sometimes do disappear out of one’s life permanently, don’t they?) The first Trainspotting movie was a brisk 93-minute movie that felt actually felt too short; this nearly two-hour-long effort feels particularly padded.

Thus, by the time T2 limps to its violent Guy Richie-like conclusion, I’d actually stopped caring what happened to any of the protagonists. And now there’s talk of a third Trainspotting movie in the air. But after sitting through T2 I only wish Boyle and company had left well enough alone.

– Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at Toronto's Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre, the Prosserman Jewish Community Centre, and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where on May 5 he will begin teaching a course entitled America’s Concerns: How the Movies Have Tackled Issues That Matter to the Voting Public, examining cinematic depictions of the issues, illegal immigration, environmental concerns, blue collar portraits etc., that dominated the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.

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