Cinematic history is rife, perhaps even founded on, explorations of white male solipsism.
From Citizen Kane to There Will Be Blood, from Taxi Driver and Midnight Cowboy to Requiem For A Dream and beyond, for well over a century our movie screens have been littered with selfish bastards ruining their lives and others’.
The leads in Trainspotting 2 (T2) – director Danny Boyle’s belated sequel to his iconic 1996 adaptation of Scottish author Irvine Welsh’s cult heroin novel – are, frankly, more Withnail & I than Charles Foster Kane.
T2 takes place 20 years after the first. The original gang returns – both in front of and behind the camera – with our now 40-something protagonists, Renton (Ewan McGregor), Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), Spud (Ewan Bremner) and Begbie (Robert Carlyle) all wrestling with their middle-aged demons.
As T2 begins, Renton – who made off with £16,000 in stolen drug money at the end of the first film – seems at least outwardly well-adjusted.
Sick Boy, the Sean Connery-worshiping rake, has succumbed to perpetual adolescence, living with his 20-something Eastern European girlfriend, playing video games and living off the proceeds of blackmail scams.
Spud, the hyper-eccentric, is still hooked on smack two decades later, his estranged partner and child also melancholy victims of his addiction. Begbie, the pub psycho, is – unsurprisingly – doing extended time for an undisclosed violent crime.
Renton appears to have chosen the life at which he sardonically sneered at the outset of the original: “Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a f__king big television, Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and electrical tin can openers…”
Of course, this is 2017, and Renton’s elegy for modern life has received a post-everything 21st century overhaul, dripping with world-weary midlife cynicism:
“Choose Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and hope that someone, somewhere cares. Choose looking up old flames, wishing you’d done it all differently. And choose watching history repeat itself…”
The punchline to Renton’s original devil-may-care reverie was, of course, that ‘choosing life’ was definitely optional. Renton and his friends had chosen an alternative – the narcotic oblivion of heroin – rendering ‘real’ life concerns moot.
Returning to perpetually overcast Edinburgh after his mother’s death, adult Renton has no such luxury, and is quickly drawn back into the lives, scams and foibles of the friends he betrayed a generation ago. Confronted with echoes of his irresponsible – seemingly bulletproof – youth at every turn, the former wild-eyed bounder is beset by the consequences of past choices and misdeeds.
Original Trainspotting screenwriter John Hodge weaves an original screenplay with elements of Welsh’s Trainspotting follow-up novel Porno. An awkward mirror of the original film, T2 reflects on ageing and mortality, the bittersweet regrets of past lives not explored, while leaning on an exhausting parade of clanging meta references to the 1996 classic. Seemingly ticking from a list, the viewer can expect a victory lap of heinous club toilets, wild foot chases, lurid altered states and occasional jarring ultraviolence.
Director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, Trance), a master of opioid cinema, plays with space and time, real and surreal, euphoria and horror via his inexhaustible tool kit of wild cinematic artifice. Boyle is also adept at depicting the brutalist council-flat grind of these characters’ lives. We’re never completely certain if T2 is set in pre or post Brexit Scotland, though the quiet kitchen-sink desperation seems to be a throughline of existence no matter the era.
At one point early in the film, Renton wonders if the belonging and community of religion would help fill the existential gap he once plugged with skag. A comic run-in with sectarian unionists quickly deflates these musings – these blokes, well into their 40s, are the very definition of arrested development, naughty boys acquiescing to their lesser angels.
In the end, Trainspotting 2 nihilistically suggests that ‘choice’ does not override our true natures. One wonders where a hypothetical T3 would find these men in another 20 years.
Trainspotting 2 is in cinemas now