“Choose life…..we thought it was amusing at the time.”
There’s a screaming sense of sadness in the air when this line is said, because it once stood out as a cry of rebellion. The emphatic repurposing of “Choose life” was when a bunch of disillusioned, disappointed, and pissed off kids in Britain told the bright and shiny establishment to shove it as they jammed to the latest cut from Pulp or Blur while chatting about football (the REAL football, you American wankers) and soaking up whatever drugs could pass the time. It was an entire generation deciding to cut the crap and start living life for the moment instead of for the boring futures their parents wanted. It was powerful, punky, and truly poignant. It was also 21 years ago, and time is cruel.
Now when “Choose life” is used, it’s said with a desperate plea for when that phrase had that rebellious spirit to it. Now it sounds like an old man having a mid-life crisis telling kids with smartphones and Twitter pages to get off of his lawn. It’s a means for a once-adventurous bad boy turned married working stiff to try to impress a Bulgarian mistress enough to get into her pants. It’s the realization that maybe all of that wild, drug-using nightlife and arrogant ambition was for nothing as it can still lead to dodgy scams, empty apartments, and a flaccid sex life. It’s old, it’s forgotten, it’s nothing more than that shirt worn by the handsome singer who himself died last year.
It’s also the best scene in T2 Trainspotting, the long-awaited sequel to the 1996 English cultural snapshot Trainspotting. It’s said by Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor), who’s returned to his hometown of Edinburgh, Scotland 20 years after he ripped off his friends from a drug deal and escaped to Amsterdam. He reconnects with old pals, including the unemployed heroin junkie Spud (Ewen Bremner) and extortionist/cocaine hound Simon (Jonny Lee Miller), who’s also living with the previously-mentioned mistress Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova) and wants to open a brothel with Mark. But the gang needs to keep an eye out for Begbie (Robert Carlyle), the violent psychopath who broke out of prison and is looking for revenge.
Now I’m as sick of Hollywood sequels as the next guy, and I was certainly very concerned that a Trainspotting sequel 21 years late would tarnish the memory of one of the best movies of the last two decades. So color me surprised to find out that T2 is actually an absolute blast, nothing touching the original film, but the best possible form of a sequel to Trainspotting. And why shouldn’t it, since every possible element from the first film is here. Director Danny Boyle (28 Days Later, Slumdog Millionaire, Steve Jobs) is back with his stylization in full effect, effortlessly mixing glowing colors and fluid camera work that’s energized but not exhausting. He fills in little bits of blanks in the character’s backstory but knows that shouldn’t distract the audience from the main story. Boyle has always been good at filling in the visual blanks in scenes, whether through neon coloring or bits of background projected scenery. Though T2 doesn’t have Brian Tufano’s grey and more grounded cinematography from the first film, but Anthony Dod Mantle does bring some extra sheen to keep the movie going forward. Boyle doesn’t mind throwing in some references to the first film, but again, they don’t stop the movie dead in its tracks. The moments are subtle, either in quick cuts to scenes from the previous film to remixed songs from the first film’s soundtrack playing in the background, emphasizing that the past isn’t as clear as we’d like to remember it.
Screenwriter John Hodge (Shallow Grave, The Beach, Trance) is again working from Irvine Welsh’s original novel and its 2002 sequel, Porno. The Scottish jargon is still proudly featured (and occasionally barely audible), but Hodge still manages to dig up the comradery between Mark and his friends, even if it’s based on a near-parasitic need to use each other as a stepping stool to get by in life. Hodge also manages to bring the wild dark fantasy of Trainspotting crashing down in T2. While their heroin habits made them not the happiest people to follow in the first movie, T2 highlights how sad and somewhat pathetic these men truly are. Their redeeming qualities have shriveled into dry husks of their younger selves and have become even more selfish bastards in their 40s. But there’s still something inside of these men that are relatable: that relentless ambition for moving forward and the glimmer of hope that they’ll be successful. Even if their endeavor is most likely futile, it’s endearing to see these 40-something former junkies bonding over their bountiful nostalgia and reaching to hit those highs again. It’s exactly what a mid-life crises from these characters would be like, and Hodge doesn’t overdo the drama or make the characters buffoons. Their sympathetic, pitiful, but end up actually finding common ground in their selfishness. Hodge sees these men as bottom-feeders, but even bottom-feeders need friends sometimes.
Fortunately, nobody in the cast is here to simply pick up a paycheck. All four leads snap right back into their characters with the slightest of ease, and even in the more physical scenes of the film they work with it. Everyone works with the energy of the film, especially Carlyle who still manages to capture that blinding rage and intimidating energy. Bremner comes off more sympathetic and probably has the saddest of the character stories, but he still carries that goofy smile and unabashed love of his friends. He actually morphs into the moral center of the movie as he tries to stay clean in his sullen apartment. Miller’s character, fueled by cocaine and the desire for money, is a bit emotionally hollow, but seeing him use a toothbrush to bleach his hair is funny enough for an admission ticket. McGregor starts slow, but he lays out bits and bits of Mark’s character over time. He peels back Mark’s layers revealing how he never truly left Edinburgh.
By the usual cold Hollywood studio standards, T2 Trainspotting had no right to be as good as it actually is. It’s not trying to top its predecessor, but a legitimate follow up to the lives of these characters. You can tell that these people wanted to do this sequel out of general fascination for these characters and where they ended up. T2 goes deeper and faces facts about the endgame of “Choose life.” Sure, that pursuit of happiness never ends and maybe it doesn’t have the same spark it once did. But whether life is writing about the tales of your debauchery or dancing to “Lust for Life” in your childhood bedroom, T2 finds the smallest amounts of bliss in an ironic world. There’s still amusement to be found and life to be lived, why stop now?
T2: Trainspotting is now playing in select theaters.