There's a saying in Hollywood, attributed to many, that goes something like "pain is temporary, film is forever". It's typically used as a motivational phrase, intended to inspire cast and crew when the going gets tough on set, getting them to try and get that perfect shot that will last "forever". It taps into the concept that movies are a form of immortality, a way for people to remain forever young as their work is captured for all time. Additionally, for many people in the industry, film is a journal, a living photo album that can follow a person through their lives. In this age of social media with its constant visual documentation, this aspect of movies may quickly become quaint, as everyone in the world will now have the experience of having their old (or rather, young) selves stare back at them with a touch of a button, able to compare Past You and Present Day You instantly. It will still be rare, though, to see the same happen not to famous actors in film, but famous characters. It's the exclusive purview of movie sequels to be able to not only find out but see and feel how a character ages and changes over the years. Many times these changes are felt more deeply than our own, given film's propensity for immortalization. That's not just Harrison Ford up there, but Han Solo. It's not just Sigourney Weaver, but Ellen Ripley. It's not only Ewan McGregor there, returning to work with director Danny Boyle and writer John Hodge for the first time in 20 years, but Mark Renton, returning to the Scotland he left behind in a hail of heroin and betrayal two decades ago. There's a large aspect of nostalgia inherent in this revisiting, combined with the dissonance and revelation of discovering where and how these once-"immortal" characters have found themselves. T2 Trainspotting is the unique sequel in that it doesn't attempt to recapture the magic of the first film, but honestly looks at how these characters have changed and yet remained themselves, reconciling their wild past with the unfamiliar, uncaring present.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of T2 (a title knowingly rife with 90's nostalgia itself, as it echoes another major franchise) is that it recontextualizes the first film. Most moviegoers' memory of the original Trainspotting would be "oh yeah, the one about heroin" and they wouldn't necessarily be wrong; the film came along at a time when "drug movies" were still looked to as morality beacons for society, and Trainspotting gleefully refuted the idea that drug use and abuse was a completely abhorrent practice. It dared to depict the joy of it, the camaraderie of committing petty crimes in order to gain one more hit. However, while the movie's portrayal of the highs and significant lows of drug use are indelible, it's that camaraderie that the film (as well as Irvine Welsh's source novel, especially) is ultimately about. Trainspotting, then, is a portrayal of the wildness, abandon, and folly of youth, the idea that you needn't "choose life" and can instead choose "something else". T2 finds Renton, Sick Boy (aka Simon, played by Jonny Lee Miller), Spud (aka Daniel, played by Ewan Bremner), and Begbie (aka Franco, played by Robert Carlyle) where we all have found or will inevitably find ourselves: with the realization that life isn't as much of a choice as it seems, and it happens to you no matter what. The people whom you've connected with and been connected to for large portions of your life never truly disappear completely, and your past can and will catch up with you.
Wrapped up in the bonds of friendship (whether dimmed by time or not) is the intensely felt if mostly unspoken feeling of male camaraderie. Each pairing of the central four men is given a moment to shine in the film, giving us and the characters time to explore how they related to each other in the past and how that has or hasn't changed in the present. Some, like Begbie, discover a brand new appreciation for each other, as he discovers that Spud, the person he once regarded as the most disposable of his mates, has a hidden talent that allows Begbie to understand his own past and ultimately causes him to reconcile his rocky relationship with his own family. Others, like Simon and Renton, rediscover their adoration of each other after so many years of seething anger due to Renton's betrayal at the end of the first film. As Simon explains (ironically as a way of appealing to Renton ostensibly to betray him in revenge, even though it's not as much of an act as Simon would like it to be), Renton and he shared their first hit together, and due to sharing the needle they used, they're essentially blood brothers. It's this feeling of being intimately bonded to one another that pervades each relationship in the film, whether it’s to each other, to former lovers (in the form of Daniel and Franco's spouses, as well as Kelly McDonald's Diane in a welcome cameo), or even their home country. Renton, helping Spud kick his still-present heroin habit, gives advice that allowed him to kick his: "you're an addict. So be addicted! Just be addicted to something else." For these men, getting a habit-forming drug out of your veins is much easier than getting away from your friends.
Just as the original Trainspotting didn't glamorize heroin, T2 doesn't romanticize relationships, no matter how strong the pull of nostalgia may be. Upon first seeing Spud again, Renton saves his life before he can commit suicide, and Spud is far from grateful, instead oozing vomit-tinged spittle over Renton as he vents twenty years of frustration for being abandoned. Begbie may learn to appreciate his family and especially his son for who they are, but that doesn't mean he's a softer, older version of his psychotic self, just a more focused one. His showdown with Renton is genuinely terrifying, especially as it's revealed that Begbie is not going to suddenly have second thoughts about murdering Mark. Simon and Renton snipe at each other throughout the entire movie, and their initial meeting lasts all of a minute before it breaks out into a vicious fistfight. Although they eventually reconcile, it's not without damage done. All these relationships are still, at their core, toxic, a fact that Renton came to realize at the end of the first film that spurred his decision to walk away with the big bag of drug money. Moreover, T2 posits that these relationships may be toxic specifically because of these people and what's inherent in them, as Simon's partner Veronica (an expertly cast Angela Nedyalkova) discovers throughout the film. Bored with the obsessive and possessive Simon, she's attracted to Renton's mischievous wit and intelligence, but ultimately sees through that facade. The only one with any integrity is Spud, whom she almost runs away with, but who, true to himself, chooses to remain. Veronica betrays the gang at the end of the film, stealing T2's version of a bag of money, but here none of the characters are shocked or truly left feeling betrayed. It's happened to them before, and it will happen again.
Boyle doesn't let himself or his actors off the hook either, explicitly calling out T2's existence as a trip down memory lane several times, but this only serves to make the film more honest and that much more resonant to me. I was 14 years old when Trainspotting was first released in 1996, and upon seeing it a year later it quickly became iconic for me. I had absolutely no interest in starting a heroin habit, but I wanted to dress like the characters, to listen to their music, to talk like Renton. It was the epitome of Cool Britannia (well, really Scotland, but whatever) for this Yank, as it epitomized the rebellious youthful spirit I aspired to. T2 forces me, its characters, and its filmmakers to look back, not in anger or any idea of "clarity", but with the knowledge that time has passed, things have changed, and there is no going back. Renton's (and John Hodge's) iconic "Choose Life" monologue is given the expected sequel reprise in the middle of the film, updated for the 21st century. It's witty, clever, insightful, and delivered by McGregor with that delightful machine gun-speed brogue that only he can do. Only, as it wraps up, the weight of time wears on Renton's face, as if he is just now realizing how far he has and hasn't come. He's a man who became addicted to "getting away" as he says, yet finds that he hadn't got that far at all. But not all is lost, as the young and beautiful Veronica realizes his value immediately after the speech. And later, at the end, Renton can finally listen to that Iggy Pop record one more time, having rediscovered a new "Lust For Life", dancing endlessly. And just like that, he's a personal icon again; in another ten years or so, I hope to be right there with him.