Trainspotting 2 review: Lusting for life

Culture Curmudgeon

Jonny Lee Miller and Ewan Mcgregor Jonny Lee Miller (L) as Sick Boy and Ewan Mcgregor (R) as Mark Renton

Trainspotting 2 is funny. But not the funny most of us would expect. The laughter I hear in my head is more from people defeated by life: The ones sick of crying in the face of impossible situations and who would rather laugh at the absurdity of it all.

A few hours after walking out of the theater, I became profoundly depressed. Despite all of the flash, bells, and whistles of Danny Boyle’s brilliant sequel to the 1996 original, its tone is subtly mournful.

When the first Trainspotting film came out, it touched the core of my 23-year-old self. I was a year out of college and drifting from job to job, trying to find my place in the world. I admit I was a pretty clueless twat with dangerous and self-destructive habits, very much like the characters in the film that’s based on Irvine Welsh’s novel of the same name.

Ahmad Coo is a producer and copy editor for the Global Business show on CGTN America. His analysis represents his views alone.Culture Curmudgeon Ahmad Coo

The first movie encapsulated all of my generation’s angst. The world of the late 1990s was on the cusp of dramatic technological transformation. The internet was largely in its infancy, but those with foresight could see it would overthrow society’s norms. We were going to be the cannon fodder for the new millennium.

Generation X was entering adulthood at a time when their predecessors, the baby boomers, were emerging from the go-go 1980s. They had pretty much inadvertently rigged the global economic system to explode.

Arguably, that specific demographic was exceedingly obsessed with material success and wealth at the expense of future generations. It was then President Ronald Reagan that pretty much set the U.S. economy on the rails leading to the Great Recession.

The slow-motion implosion of the global economy kicked off in the early 1990s, when an oil price slump led to a worldwide downturn. That led to a spike in unemployment numbers everywhere, especially Scotland. Edinburgh in the 1990s was an economic backwater. Industries were dying off and jobs were virtually nonexistent.

Trainspotting’s anti-heroes grew up in this uncertainty. Faced with such desperation, they did things desperate aimless young adults usually do, rebel and lead hedonistic lives.

The first Trainspotting captured the zeitgeist and highlighted my generation’s fears and hopes. But the film was also embraced by Gen X because it was ultimately a gigantic middle finger to a world that had pretty much left them in the lurch with no jobs, no security, and no future.

But even as the movie explored a world that was mired in drug addiction and hopelessness, it was imbued with a romantic optimism. The main characters were all horribly flawed but they aspired to be better versions of themselves. They failed, of course, but the movie ended with a message that seemed to say everything will be better soon enough.

The second Trainspotting mourns the end of youth, while also serving as a tribute to the original that helped define Generation X.

Set 20 years later, we find a middle aged Mark Renton running on a treadmill in a high-end gym surrounded by young, sleek bodies. The irony isn’t lost on the audience, since he’s running in a figurative and literal rat race that he had sworn never to be part of. But the real world, as he finds out, is something he can’t opt out of so easily.

If the first Trainspotting held the promise of change and a brighter future, the sequel is the brutal reality check.

Twenty years on, we see the four friends again and they look like they’ve aged well. Sick Boy, Renton, Spud are in great shape, while Begbie is a little grayer and slightly overweight. But gone is their youth. They’re all in stasis and their lives haven’t really gone as planned. Renton has pretty much lost everything, Sick boy is a low-level gangster, Spud is still a heroin addict, and Begbie is in prison.

(From L-R) Ewen Bremner, Ewan Mcgregor, Jonny Lee Miller, and Robert Carlye Courtesy: Sony Pictures

Seeing them together for the first time in so long brought some welcome nostalgia. But it also reminded me and probably everyone else in the theater that half of their lives were over. Renton and company are still losers but ones endowed with a hyper-awareness of their mortality.

The four friends are facing increasingly diminished lives because of a lifetime of disappointing choices. There’s not much wiggle room for anyone to make a fresh start. So Begbie, Renton, and Sick Boy all try their hand at breaking out of their slump, which basically means trying to relive what Boyle calls the bravado of their youth.

Of course, hi jinx ensues.

Renton and Sick Boy are trying to become pimps. Begbie has broken out of prison and is burgling his way through the old neighborhood. Surprisingly, it’s Spud who finds a more meaningful outlet for his frustration.

The subsequent misadventures are laugh-out funny but they’re also tinged with sadness. In the first Trainspotting, their criminal proclivities were played off for laughs. Boys will always be boys.

In the sequel, their attempts to reboot their lives are devoid of youthful recklessness and joy.

Instead what you see onscreen are middle-aged men trying to relive their past glories. They’re trying so hard to exert some sort of control over their lives, but it only serves to highlight just how powerless they are. Time isn’t on their side anymore.

Danny Boyle said it best in an interview on a promotional tour for Trainspotting 2.

“You don’t care about time when you’re young,” he said, “But when you get older, you realize that it’s time that doesn’t care about you.”

This is a hard truth for Renton. Twenty years ago, he had escaped the addiction and hopelessness of his old world. But life has an infinite ability to crush hopes and dreams on a regular basis, which is also one of the major themes of the sequel.

But Boyle doesn’t resort to cheap melodramatics that he used endlessly in Slumdog Millionaire — one of his earlier movies that inexplicably won several academy awards. Instead he stays true to original film’s almost nihilistic gallows humor.

Somehow, Boyle’s depressing situations hit harder when you’re laughing at them.

In the film’s final sequences, Renton and crew find themselves in a city they had sought to escape. But Boyle cushions the blow by putting his own spin on Tom Wolfe’s well-known adage that says you can never go home again.

Renton, Spud, Sick Boy, and yes even Begbie, get to do just that — even if it means going to a metaphorical home of unfulfilled promises and broken dreams.