2017; directed by Danny Boyle; adapted by John Hodge; 117 mins
21 years on and it’s funny that everyone’s so excited for the return of these most beloved and – truly – iconic movie characters… because they are psychos and junkies! I mean, for me, that’s my kinda characters but it’s not often that the national or international consciousness waxes positive on disreputable working class characters. Normally, they need to stay in line with projected middle class values or be validated by meeting a royal or some such shite. Not here. I mean, one of the film’s saving graces is that even despite having Oscars in his pocket, Danny Boyle hasn’t turned into a ‘respectable’ director so whilst there is melancholy and regret but still all done with Captain Big Bollocks on the accelerator!
The film picks up in the present day (the timeline doesn’t quite gel with T1 if you’re bothered by that sort of thing. I’m not.) with Renton back in Edinburgh having suffered a heart attack at the gym. He decides to reconnect with old acquaintances like his Dad and Diane, who are cautiously pleased to see him and he also revisits Spud and Sick Boy who are definitely not!
Sick Boy (who is mostly referred to as Simon here) is scamming perverts and running the dreariest pub imaginable. Spud is back on smack having been royally screwed out of a good job in proper Daniel Blake fashion. Begbie is in prison and has been for 20 years but now he’s determined to get out…
What then plays out is the four men’s emotional re-connections and divisions and the dredging up of the past with both nostalgia a certain realisation that the past was was pretty crap too! There’s maybe a bit more plot to this one but it’s essentially a character piece like before, examining the fallout of age, drugs and poverty.
However, like the first one, this is no bleak docu-drama (and that’s no criticism of the genre as established from day one on this blog, it is a wonderful thing) it is as fast-paced, surreal and funny as before. If anything, the first one was controversial because it wasn’t telling anyone off, it was saying the most political thing you could say about drugs which is; “Hey! Y’know what? Heroin addicts REALLY love heroin!” There seems to be this idea that if something is shot in a way that is stylish, it thereby distracts from or glamourises the events it depicts. Like people saying Reservoir Dogs glamourised violence but look at it again: the violence is nasty and painful and shocking. The same with the two Trainspottings: the flats are grotty, Begbie is scary and the landscape is miserable. But through all that is love, compassion, laughs and directorial flourish aswell.
John Hodge‘s screenplay hits almost all the right notes with regards to the progression of the characters and the actors themselves inhabit and know the characters so well that even a prick like Sick Boy becomes at least empathetic when essayed by Hodge’s words and Jonny Lee Miller’s performance. If there is a caveat to the writing it is that, whilst the callbacks to the original are really smart and really sensitively done it’s the “Choose Life” speech that doesn’t quite match up and really feels wedged in. A reference too far. Coulda done without it. On the other hand, there’s no Sean Connery fixation in this one which never really worked in the first one. An overhang of 90s Tarantino syndrome.
On the actors, Ewan McGregor really sold me on the movie trailer. When I was worried about whether it was referencing past glories too much, there’s a bit where Diane asks him if he still takes heroin (see above) and the way in which he answers “no”. This moment seemed to really sum up Renton: quiet, amused and sensitive. Not that Renton isn’t made to pay the penance for running off with the 16 grand in the first film. He is held to rights for taking their money which was their way out at the time!
Without giving too much away, Spud becomes a real emotional anchor for the film and Ewan Bremner’s performance is perfectly judged. Some of the facial expressions he pulls could so easily be dismissed as cartoonish but it’s through them and similar such body language, we see that Spud is someone who is so completely himself that he’s unaware or even unashamed of his outward, gangly scramble.
As Begbie, Robert Carlyle strikes fear in your heart but this time round, there is real melancholy. Like in an Abel Ferrara film, you get a sense of a character becoming aware of himself for the first time. Not only his self-immolation but the destruction he wreaks on those around him.
Anthony Dod Mantle takes over from Brian Tufano and continues the great work he’s being doing with Boyle ever since Vaccuming Completely Nude in Paradise and really peaked in 2013 with the underrated Trance. The harmony of composition, lighting and colour in this film looks like second nature, heightening it from stark Scottish environs to a state of blissful hyperreality, whilst not being quite as baldly surreal as the 1996 original.
The film, in the end, is just right. It’s not without a couple of flaws but neither is the original. The idea that the new one is somehow weaker because it doesn’t have the surprise factor but it doesn’t because it can’t. The original was a product of being in the right time and place. It was a major part of the Cool Britannia phenomenon in the 90s, coming out of 17 years of Tory rule, Thatcherism, privatisation, the death of the working class, AIDs, rave culture, hope for the future and people finally saying; “fuck it”! This is a film about re-assessing the nostalgia of those ‘good’ times under the wing of heroin and the mixed results for the protagonists both that they have wrought upon themselves or not, stuck in a world changing out of their control and beyond their ken.