I first watched Trainspotting about a year after its 1996 release, on TV at my mom's house in Texas. I was a recent high school graduate and it was a heady cinematic experience. I wanted to barf. I wanted to dance to Blondie's "Atomic." I did not want to try heroin or sleep with men who shit the bed, but I still yearned to be cool enough to not "choose life," the Irvine Welsh equivalent of being what The Catcher in the Rye's Holden Caulfield considers a "phony" or what your kid sister calls "basic."
Two decades later, I watched the film's sequel, T2: Trainspotting, in a London cinema on a quiet Saturday afternoon (the movie, out March 17 stateside, was released in the U.K. in January, don't @ me). Once again, I wanted to barf (thanks, Spud). I still wanted to dance to Blondie (only to "Dreaming" this time). I realized that I had chosen life.
So has Ewan McGregor's Mark Renton. When we first reunite with the now-clean Renton, he's got a trendy hairstyle and is pounding away at a treadmill in a posh gym like he's Bridget Jones after a breakup. He's married and living in Amsterdam, and appears to be as slick and made-over as his hometown of Edinburgh as become. He's swapped dirty tank tops and skinny trousers for jazzy brand-name tracksuits, which he wears on his runs.
He's figured it all out, he tells his old pal Spud (Ewen Bremner) with the knowing gleam of a guy who probably has Awaken the Giant Within on his bedside table.
"Be addicted," Mark advises his friend. "Be addicted to something else."
Unfortunately, like most people who gloat that they've discovered the secret to successful living, it's all bullshit. Compared to his old mates — Spud is still an addict and a deadbeat dad, Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) is blackmailing johns in a sketchy prostitution scam, and Begbie (Robert Carlyle) is in prison — Renton is the picture of clean living, but his life, too, is falling apart. His marriage his over, his career has fallen flat, his health is precarious, and he's highly aware that he's now a 46-year-old man with little to show for it.
What's a man with few prospects and some ne'er-do-well mates to do? Regress.
I realized that I had chosen life.
To be fair, Renton's abandonment of his clean-living lifestyle in favor of drugs, video games, and the company of Sick Boy's beguiling sex worker pal Veronika (newcomer Anjela Nedyalkova) ups the movie's entertainment factor. Watching him and Sick Boy (who now, alas, goes by Simon) scam bar-goers via a song-and-dance routine is one of the sequel's most hilarious moments, and it all taps into the nostalgia of the first film. That's why this is the rare sequel that knocks it out of the park; director Danny Boyle isn't trying to reinvent the wheel. Through flashbacks and Spud's stories (he's apparently the Irvine Welsh of the group), the characters and plots from the 1996 original are very much present. You could argue that it's less T2 and more T1.5, but it's still entertaining as hell.
And yet, watching these characters live out their 40s as irresponsible and emotionally stunted man-boys is also a bit of a philosophical downer. Is a 46-year-old man sleeping on his friend's couch a genius for refusing to "choose life," or is he a loser? Do people ever truly change? The female characters from the first film (Kelly Macdonald's Diane and Shirley Henderson's Gail) have made something of their lives. The men have not. What's more, they seem threatened by the concept of achieving personal progress. When Begbie discovers that his son is taking classes in hotel management, he's disgusted. Sick Boy accuses Renton of being "a tourist in your own past," but he himself is still mired in the muck of his life, abusing drugs, swindling people, and holding 20-year-old grudges. The fact that Renton and Begbie know exactly where to find him after two decades of zero contact speaks volumes.
Most of us don't necessarily have to "choose life" and run out and buy selfie sticks or anything, but we do have to grow up. Seeing Renton and Co. fall back into their old habits is satisfying from a fan's perspective. From an adult perspective, however, it's bleak. Just ask Begbie's father.