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Bust for Life

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Jaap Buitendijk/TriStar Pictures

MOVIE REVIEW
T2 Trainspotting (2017)

Being young is easy, in that many of your choices are made for you. You can’t control where you live or where you go to school. Your social circles are the ones your family moves in. The kids you spend time with on the playground become your friends. In many places with a homogenous background you all know the same things. You sing the same songs; tell the same stories; eat the same food; go the same places.

And then you grow up some, and start making choices. To cut your hair this way or that way. To play this sport or that instrument. To watch this program on the telly instead of that one; to love this band instead of that one; to have this tattoo or that piercing; to love this person instead of that one. So you grow apart from certain people because of these choices, and closer to others due to your interest in the same things. And then you fall in love and choose someone to spend your time with and that narrows things down still. And then you wake up one day – when you’re much older than you’d ever thought you’d be – and you have to reckon with all of your choices.

The 1996 film “Trainspotting” was famously about a group of junkies who “choose not to choose.” All their energy was on getting money for their next fix. The ferocity and single-mindedness with which they pursued their happiness through drugs catapulted “Trainspotting” past being another after-school special into a worldwide phenomenon. Its lust for life (sorry) was a rare thing, and the movie has absolutely stood the test of time. A sequel was not, of course, inevitable; who could imagine the characters would all live so long? But here it is; and here we are.

This movie begins in a gym, with a panning shot up and down people running on rows of treadmills. One of them is eventually shown to be Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) who then dramatically collapses. It transpires he hasn’t been back to the U.K. since the events of the first film, although a little later he returns to Edinburgh for his mother’s (unshown) funeral. While back in town he looks up Spud (Ewen Bremner) and finds him in the midst of a suicide attempt. He saves Spud’s life and then tracks down Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), now using his real name Simon. The ensuing welcome turns into a violent fight which smashes up Simon’s pub; the only punter present doesn’t react past protecting his drinks from the flying glass. But all three of them have a bigger problem. Begbie (Robert Carlyle) has been in prison for the past 20 years, except when he isn’t.

Simon is still a low-level crook, now focused on blackmail and petty theft. He has steered clear of the organized crime in the city and has swapped from heroin to cocaine, when he can get it. He’s tolerated because he’s so small-time. A Bulgarian prostitute named Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova) has aligned herself with him. Simon is in love with her as much as he can be, and is desperate to keep her close. He even brags to Renton that she slept with him one time without him having to pay her. Simon’s current big scam is to turn a derelict pub he inherited into a brothel with Veronika as madam, but it’s Renton’s big idea to apply for E.U. regeneration money to do it, and to hire Spud to oversee the building work. There are a few plot holes here, as there are with Begbie’s exit from prison. Surely the E.U. does due diligence as adequate as that of a local gangster, and surely someone in authority would have paid a visit to Begbie’s wife June (Pauline Turner) or son (Scot Greenan). But never mind. Begbie spends his freedom in light housebreaking, failing to sleep with June and continuing to be the most terrifying motherfucker in the room. Mr. Carlyle is extraordinary, all ratlike menace and seething fury hiding a misguided, lonely core that gets release once only. He is a cobra that’s turned into something a little slower and larger, but just as deadly and never to be underestimated. Mr. Carlyle doesn’t act much anymore after some serious career disappointments a few years ago, which is a tremendous loss for us.

Because just watch Begbie’s eventual confrontation with Renton. It is the most electric moment in the film. It’s shot very cleverly (take a bow, cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle) and leads to a chase/fight sequence in a car park that is both very funny and very frightening. Thirty silent seconds twists the whole movie around and up a level, and that would not have been possible without Mr. Carlyle’s face. Mr. McGregor carries the film as its rotten, charming core; the underrated Mr. Miller pushes the action with a combination of bottomless need and endless contempt; and Mr. Bremner’s kind heart and goofy face keeps them all human; but it’s Mr. Carlyle who acts the rest of them off the screen with little more than a twitch of his lips.

It’s also the only sequence that is entirely focused on now. Spud is able to stay clean by writing down the stories of his and his friends’ adventures from when they were young (a level of self-reference that somehow isn’t annoying), but this involves many flashback sequences mixing in footage from the first film. Renton and Simon spend a night trying to impress Veronika with tales of their childhood hero-worship of George Best. Veronika, of course, sees straight through them, although she doesn’t tell them so in English.

This night follows the strangest sequence in the film. Renton and Simon, with Veronika driving the getaway car, go to an Orange Order lodge in Glasgow to steal debit cards. (The Orange Order is a “fraternal organization” that wants to be along the lines of the Kiwanis or Elks – except that it is Protestant only, therefore sectarian and discriminatory. The marches in Northern Ireland that cause so much trouble are by them.) Renton and Simon already know what pin the bigots will be using, but before they can make their escape the bouncer demands they give the club a song. With Simon on piano, Renton improvises a perfectly rhyming and scanning song about killing Catholics. Clearly his true talents were in improvised comedy or fascist propaganda, instead of stock management.

Scotland has changed in the last 20 years. At the airport, Renton is greeted by a young Slovenian woman working for the tourist board. Begbie’s son is studying hotel management. In case we’d missed the point, Spud lives on the 13th floor of an apartment block that’s about to be demolished, so must spend a lot of time walking past scrapheaps. And in a desperately awkward updating of the previous movie, Renton makes Veronika a speech that’s an updated version of the first movie’s famous voiceover.

The first movie had the sense to philosophize to the viewers and not to a bored woman in a champagne bar. But this movie has such a hard time letting go of the first one that the music cues, the old footage, even the repeated use of the same locations lose their impact through being overdone. Less of this would definitively have been more. Director Danny Boyle and writer John Hodge don’t trust that we will get the point.

There are a couple different points they are trying to make, of course. Times have moved on and these four have not kept up. Their women have built lives without them; they are in bad physical shape; the youths coming up behind them have chances and choices they never did. Edinburgh has shifted from a grotty backwater to an international attraction. No one is colonizing the Scots anymore; instead money is being literally thrown at them. And four of the main characters have no idea how to handle this embarrassment of riches. Their selfishness makes it impossible for them to live normal lives, even if they replace damaging addictions with healthier ones. It becomes clearer over the course of the film that Renton and Simon’s friendship, even after all these years, is one of mutual codependency. Is their growing realization that no one else will ever understand each other the way they do a triumph, or a profound failure? Is the way all four characters cling to their shared past a tribute to it? Or is it a crying shame that they are unable to manage the wider world?

And why is the person who is able to use them for her own needs not the center of the film?

The movie stands alone, just about, but with such a heavy burden of the past hanging over it it’s tough to imagine you’d see it without knowing of the first one. So, as one scene directly asks, is this a memorial, or is it nostalgia? It’s definitely nostalgia – not that there’s anything wrong with that – but it could have pushed past that into something new. Veronika could have been her own person, instead of being seen only through the men’s eyes. (There is one scene that deliberately ensures the film passes the Bechdel test, but it’s a weak counterbalance to all the scenes of Ms. Nedyalkova doing nothing other than listening attentively. Let’s hope this part is a good calling card for her.) These men are stuck in their glory days and don’t seem to care. There’s a whole world out there they are so afraid of they are happy to be left behind. To curl back into their childhood patterns is a not a good choice, and the movie seems to think we’ll be glad for them, and forget that predictable old bigots are easy to take advantage of. The ending is pitched as a happy one – for almost everyone – but the final shot of the film is desperately pathetic. It’s not a memorial, or nostalgia. It’s a burial.

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