Filming a sequel to one of the greatest films of the 1990s sounds like a bad idea, even when the same director and writing team are involved. Imagine if Quentin Tarantino decided to film a sequel to Pulp Fiction, or David Fincher made Fight Club 2. Sometimes the brilliance of a film relies on the characters existing within the confines of said film, and the film itself existing in the time it was released. To go back and revisit feels like a fool’s errand.
The idea for a sequel to Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting started with Irvine Welsh’s follow-up to his original 1993 novel. Released in 2003, Porno revisits the characters from the first book, and describes the gang’s attempts to break into the world of pornography. While a direct follow-up to the novel of Trainspotting, it also takes ideas from the film adaptation and exists as a sequel to both.
To pull the original team and cast together for the film sequel is a remarkable achievement in itself. Joining director Danny Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge are all the principle cast members from the 1996 film: Ewen McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller, Robert Carlyle and Ewen Bremner. In the intervening years McGregor had become a Jedi, Miller had married Angelina Jolie, Carlyle had become a Bond villain and Bremner had become a character actor for hire in Hollywood.
When I met Danny Boyle at the New Zealand premiere of T2 Trainspotting, I told him I was glad he hadn’t taken Welsh’s Porno as the basis for the script. ‘Yeah, it’s not one of his best novels at the end of the day,’ he replied. Hollywood has already done that sort of thing anyway, I added. “Yeah, you’re right” he said, catching my drift. “A couple of years ago there was a glut of films with a similar premise, like We Made A Porno [Zack And Miri Make A Porno].”
Instead, Hodge’s script begins with Mark Renton’s nostalgic trip back to Edinburgh from Amsterdam, where he’s been living for the last twenty years. Simon ‘Sick Boy’ Williamson is a scam-artist, working alongside his Bulgarian girlfriend Veronika. Francis Begbie is serving a lengthy prison sentence, and Daniel ‘Spud’ Murphy is still addicted to heroin and suicidal following the separation from his wife and teenage son.
The film does play with our nostalgia for the first film, but it never fees mawkish. The lead characters have all grown up, but the situation they find themselves in feels relevant. Sick-Boy’s scam – filming businessmen in hotels with Veronika and subsequently blackmailing them with the footage – isn’t glamorised, and starts to fail just as Renton returns. Spud is at his lowest ebb, with his suicide letter to Gail providing the heartbeat of the film and kick-starting a raft of reminiscences of years gone by. Begbie, unsurprisingly locked up at her majesty’s pleasure, organises an injury from a fellow inmate so he can then escape from the hospital. There’s no real reason for his escape, and on the outside he reverts back to his old ways, bringing his unenthusiastic son to burgle houses in the dead of night.
To compliment Spud’s nostalgic writings, footage from the first film is also used sparingly. Spud leaves a boxing gym, and finds himself on the same street he ran down with Renton, running from security guards from where they’ve just shoplifted. In another moment, Sick-Boy reminds Renton of Tommy, the friend he introduced to heroin, ultimately killing him. Renton returns the guilt-trip, reminding Sick-Boy of the infant he left to die in their squalid flat.
Interspersed in the film are some brilliant shots of younger versions of the main characters, which begins with the opening credits portraying the main characters as schoolchildren. In a later memory, we see Renton and Sick-Boy scoring their first hit, and a memorial trip to the countryside to honour Tommy reflects an earlier trip with Tommy in tow.
There are also plenty of subtle references to the first film. When Renton enters a nightclub toilet and sees the disgusting state of the toilets, it echoes the moment in the first film where he visits a horrific pub toilet to empty his bowels (and unintentionally lose his suppositories). During the final confrontation with Begbie, Renton crawls out of a hole onto the roof of Sick-Boy’s pub in exactly the same way he emerged from that original Brian Eno-soundtracked toilet-dive. Upon his return to his childhood bedroom, he flicks through the LPs on the floor and drops the needle on Iggy Pop’s Lust For Life before abandoning it on the first drumbeat.
Film sequels shouldn’t be this good. It’s a massive credit to Danny Boyle that not only could he bring everybody back to Edinburgh, but that he could helm a film that’s so reverent to its past and so fresh and innovative at the same time.
The soundtrack manages to do the same, with nostalgia (Queen’s Radio Ga Ga, Blondie’s Dreaming and Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Relax) sitting firmly alongside newer songs (Young Father’s Get Up, Fat White Family’s Whitest Boy On The Beach and High Contrast’s Shotgun Mouthwash). Most impressive is the soundtrack’s bookended homages to the breakout songs from the first film’s soundtrack: the Prodigy’s remix of Lust For Life, and Underworld’s chopped and screwed remix of their Born Slippy classic, Slow Slippy.
Hit: Radio Gaga – Queen
Hidden Gem: Silk – Wolf Alice