“Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television…I chose not to choose life. I chose something else.”
If you were in your late teens or twenties when the movie adaptation of Trainspotting was released in 1996, you likely have that monologue on a poster in your room, memorized and repeated as a flirt line to goth and punk girls, or seared into your brain like a nihilistic psalm.
In the mid to late 1990s, sarcasm was both weapon and spiritual armor for young writers. Grunge was a big part of its evangelical pomp and shine, but transgressive fiction was the beating heart of its theology.
In place of Dune’s Bene Gesserit “Litany Against Fear” we had Tyler Durden in Fight Club proclaiming “You're not a beautiful and unique snowflake” and, before that, Trainspotting’s Mark Renton’s boilerplate of calls-to-action, like Lear’s howl with a Scottish accent kicked off by mocking the anti-drug propaganda line “Choose Life.”
Despite Cobain’s death, we found new heroes. Our saints of pen and narcotics were authors like Chuck Palanhiuk, Brett Easton Ellis, Hubert Selby Jr., and Douglas Coupland. And Irvine Welsh.
Welsh’s unconventional approach to his novels, often penned in the colloquial Scottish syntax, that written-as-heard aesthetic, wasn’t just a blower of minds, it was a game-changer: if you could understand it, it counted as communication. Sure, it was hard to get into at first but eventually the opening “The sweat wis lashing oafay Sick Boy; he wis trembling” became our own “Happy families are all alike…” And like all great literature, it taught you how to read it.
It is arguable that Manila’s “wasak” arts and culture proponents took cues from the approach, attitude, and world view of transgressive fictionists and adapted it to fit our Third World milieu. Norman Wilwayco’s novel (and later the film adaptation) Mondomanila certainly wouldn’t exist without Welsh, Palanhiuk et. al.
Trainspotting's characters were monolithic and emblematic not only of the social ills of Scotland in the 1990s, but of the heroin and Ecstasy-plagued world back then. Its story is a caveat and spectacle of how Danny Boyle and his actors launched their careers into stratospheric levels of celebrity.
This is a sequel that does not fail the original and fully intends to stand on its own merits. It gives us back all the reasons to once again take drugs in psychic self-defense with the now aged petty criminals, still sour and hung-up on what could have been the biggest score of their life 20 years back (one positively murderous). There’s plenty of the cutlass black comedy here and also those WTF moments that fans of the first movie will be familiar with. Except this time, it’s a meditation on growing old and not growing up, of missed friends and missed opportunities. And plenty of the “Feckin hell, I got old!”
See, 20 years ago, four life-long friends/associates/bitter enemies had travelled to London to sell a bag of fortuitously obtained heroin. While the rest were sleeping, Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) snuck out with the entire loot: £16,000 in cash. He took a train to Amsterdam and hasn’t been back since.
We see Renton on a treadmill when the film opens. He’s now the fitter, happier, more productive person his old junkie nihilist self would sneer at as a fool and a “wanker.” Renton slips and collapses on the floor of the gym. He is then made motivated enough to go back to Edinburgh, to return to the only place he can ever call home and somehow make things right with his old friends.
And they’re all still waiting for him. His old mates Daniel “Spud” Murphy (Ewen Bremner), Simon “Sick Boy” Williamson (Jonny Lee Miller), and Francis “Franco” Begbie (Robert Carlyle). Just like self-destruction, self-loathing, and petty criminality. 20 years, and the more things change, you know?
To think T2 almost didn’t get made until after director Danny Boyle and Ewan McGregor patched up their old fight about casting Leo DiCaprio over McGregor in The Beach. But we’re glad they kissed and made up. T2 is now the third Welsh book to be adapted into film after the forgettable The Acid House in 1998 starring Kevin McKidd (as a different character); and Filth in 2013 starring James McAvoy.
T2’s story is an amalgam of the book Porno (2002), and a few episodes off the Trainspotting novel. It also explains the title more clearly than the first movie did.
Begbie, predictably, has been in prison. Spud, predictably, is on the streets. Renton is still on the run from Begbie, as is Sick Boy Simon to a lesser extent. Simon’s still hustling. He is very much in reduced circumstances as a pimp/blackmailer, but then he always does feel a cut above the circumstance he’s presently in.
The surprise standouts here is Ewen Bremner, imbuing Spud’s failed father and just-can’t-get-it-together everyman with depth into a true tragic figure. It’s keen irony that his situation has to do both with his own incapability to lead a straight life and Renton leaving him £4000 20 years ago, his share of the original drug score—“I was a junkie! What did you think I was going to do with all that money?!” he screams at Renton in their clusterfuck of a reunion.
Another notable performance is by Anjela Nedyalkova, who plays Sick Boy’s on/off twentysomething girlfriend/employee Veronika Kovach. She provides a sane (and gorgeous) counterpoint to the careening trajectories of the druggie males around her.
Like when Renton explains what the “Choose Life” slogan is and their sarcastic addendums to Veronika, it seems dated and diluted, a tired old mantra of entitlement that makes you cringe in the face of all the sci-fi strangeness and horrid cruelty that’s happened in the world; events that the four friends missed because they were too busy looking down at the wounds of their old betrayal.
Veronika’s millennial is perceptive and wise here: she, the Bulgarian beauty who’s been recruited by Sick Boy in hopes of potential DIY erotic stardom (read: camgirl), a conflict refugee who’s got more to worry about than a range of legal blue collar Edinburgh jobs that may enervate the soul, and the propensity of the men around her to shoot up heroin in the most untimely of circumstances. Choose life? Please, Mr. Renton.
The new litany goes: “Choose Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and hope that someone, somewhere cares. Choose looking up old flames, wishing you’d done it all differently. And choose watching history repeat itself….”
This version feels reductionist and petty and condescending. But that is the point. We feel sorry for these aging white addicts finding themselves still on the same conveyor belt of Soy Un Perdedor. Their Ouroboros are patterns already laid out clearly but unable to be transcended.
Soon, they too feel sorry for themselves, and even show attempts at entrepreneurial reform but then, as the world of Welsh stories go, things always go horribly, familiarly awry. Why? Because none of them have neither the energy or the will to change their downward spiral that began two decades previous.
Boyle rescues the whole thing from catastrophe like a deft drunken master. He fills in the gaps of the first movie with splices of old footage that paint the boys as childhood friends, uses uncanny camera angles in tune with weird situations to infuse them with better visual exposition and cues (watch out for the Kelly MacDonald and Irvine Welsh cameos), and just the skill of filmmaking that was honed to a perfect edge from the grit of Shallow Grave, the pageantry of Slumdog Millionaire, up to the cerebral grace notes of Steve Jobs is marshalled for T2.
This is still a love letter, rambling, but never merely nostalgic. Even if Boyle doesn’t get to say everything he wants to and sometimes proffers style over clarity, he does nail all the right parts at kinda sorta the right time, like a once glorious punk band again fingering the chords to Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life for an impromptu jam.
T2 seeks to conquer a new kingdom of now: addicted, accelerated, and still utterly transgressive. It’s to see just how fucked up everything can get that keeps us on this train ride. And it does. Here we feckin go again, Rents.
“T2 Trainspottting” opens exclusively at Ayala Malls Cinemas: Glorietta 4 and Trinoma on March 1, 2017.