Monday, August 21, 2017

"Trainspotting" and "T2: Trainspotting": review

The last time I'd seen "Trainspotting" was on video in the late 1990s. I had only four sketchy recollections from that film: the bedsheet full of shit, the dead baby, Ewan McGregor climbing into a toilet and swimming in a serene ocean, and young punks running gleefully/desperately down the street to avoid arrest. There was a story that went along with those four tattered memories, but I couldn't recall it. Often, when I can't remember a movie's plot, it's because the plot is so badly written as to be unmemorable. In the case of "Trainspotting," it wasn't the unmemorable nature of the film so much as it was the feebleness of my memory combined with the fact that, as a much younger man two decades ago, I didn't really appreciate what I was seeing. The film is now considered both a cult and a popular hit, ranking #10 on the British Film Institute's list of the 100 Greatest British Films of All Time.

Made in 1996, directed by Danny Boyle, and adapted from a 1993 novel by Irvine Welsh (who also cameos in the film), "Trainspotting" stars a young, skinny Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner (lately seen in "Wonder Woman," reviewed here), Jonny Lee Miller, Robert Carlyle, Kevin McKidd, Kelly Macdonald (debuting, and long before her days as a troubled ghost in the Harry Potter films), Eileen Nicholas, and James Cosmo (who was much less burly twenty years ago). This is Boyle's second film, made before he rose to fame with works like "Sunshine," "28 Days Later," "Slumdog Millionaire," and "127 Hours" (reviewed here).

The story focuses on a group of friends, most of whom are heroin junkies, one of whom is a raging alcoholic and brawler, and one of whom is a health nut until he succumbs to heroin and comes to a tragic end. Our protagonist is Mark Renton (McGregor), who also gives us voiceover narration, beginning with his now-famous "Choose Life" speech, which mocks an anti-drug slogan of the day. Renton's childhood mates are Sick Boy, a.k.a. Simon (Miller), who is handsome and amoral; Daniel "Spud" Murphy (Bremner), who is goofy but sincere and kindhearted; drinker/brawler Francis "Franco" Begbie (Carlyle); and Thomas "Tommy" MacKenzie (McKidd), whose veins remain untainted until he loses his girl, gets depressed, and turns to skag. These guys are "friends" insofar as they've grown up together, but the story has them all acting in such selfish, backstabbing ways that it's hard to see how they can still meaningfully be called friends as young adults. Spud is the only one who truly shows any honesty and loyalty; Renton is an aloof cynic when he's not tripping; Begbie is a violence junkie who doesn't care how the consequences of his actions affect his mates; Simon is constantly flirting with HIV/AIDS thanks to his promiscuity and needle-sharing, and none of these guys seem to care about their parents and how they feel.

I think another reason why I had trouble remembering the plot of "Trainspotting" is that the movie is more of a slice-of-life dramedy than an actual linear narrative that's supposed to culminate in something meaningful. By the end of the film—and I hope this isn't a spoiler after twenty-one years—Renton, the supposed "moral center" of the story, ends up fucking everyone over by taking almost all the money from a drug deal. In the meantime, we get—pardon the pun—a full dose of what junkie life in Scotland is like. Renton ends up having sex with a gorgeous young woman named Diane (Macdonald), who turns out to be a fifteen-year-old high-schooler. Diane blackmails Renton to force him to keep seeing her (twenty years later, in "T2: Trainspotting," Diane has become a completely different person). Sick Boy ends up losing his baby daughter out of sheer neglect: the baby dies while everyone is out of their minds on smack. When Sick Boy demands that Renton say something while they're all staring into the crib at the pitiful corpse, Renton's answer is to turn away and shoot up again.

"Trainspotting" hits the sweet spot, combining comedy and drama into a coherent whole. The movie can be taken as a kind of social commentary about the anomie and meaninglessness of a junkie's life, and having seen the film again for the first time in about two decades, I can now—as a much older man—appreciate why the film is considered a classic. I'm not sure whether the Scots would call this "the most Scottish film ever" in quite that same way that "The Commitments" has been hailed as "the most Irish film ever": who wants their country represented by junkies, after all? But "Trainspotting" is like a core sample of a particular time and place; the comedy keeps the movie from being completely gritty and realistic, but the misery and tragedy of these broken lives nevertheless keep the story grounded and relatable, even to those of us who know next to nothing about this sort of existence. "Trainspotting" is part comedy, but it's not a feel-good film in the way that "The Commitments" (another 90s movie) is. I won't be going back to it anytime soon, but I'm glad to own the movie now.

"T2: Trainspotting" came out just this year, and it's a sequel that is only partly based on Irvine Welsh's 2002 sequel novel Porno. The same ensemble cast (minus McKidd as Tommy, who died of toxoplasmosis in the first film) returns for this reprise. Twenty years have passed since the first movie, and what we learn fairly quickly is that some of our heroes have changed while others have resolutely not. Spud, still goofy, has recently lost a construction job and is estranged from his girlfriend and son. Violent Begbie, who threw a violent tantrum in the first movie after Renton's theft of the drug-deal cash, has been in jail for twenty years, and has just failed to make parole because his volatile nature is still an issue. Sick Boy has been using his perverse talents to extort people with power and authority by working with a Bulgarian prostitute named Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova), filming kinky liaisons and then blackmailing the johns for a ten-percent cut of their salaries. Mark Renton, meanwhile, comes back to Edinburgh after hiding out in Amsterdam for twenty years. He's been married for fifteen of those years, but he's now getting divorced and has nothing, socially, to fall back on.

Once again in the old neighborhood, Renton knows that his old mates won't be happy to see him, given that he betrayed all of them by stealing their drug money. (Renton did leave Spud £4000.*) He first finds Spud, who is in the midst of committing suicide—a scene that ends hilariously with Spud projectile-vomiting while wearing a plastic bag over his head. Spud resents Renton at first, but Renton's presence gives Spud a new desire to live, and Renton talks about how running has become his new addiction: the point is that Spud—who is still a junkie—doesn't need to stop being addicted: he merely needs to become addicted to something else. Renton next visits Sick Boy at Sick Boy's pub (Simon's day job, when he's not out blackmailing people, is pub owner), who flies into a rage and beats Renton before Veronika intervenes. Simon calms down when Renton, who has done fairly well for himself in legitimate business over the years, hands Simon the £4000 he should have given him twenty years earlier. He and Renton and Veronika then begin plotting to make the second floor of Sick Boy's pub into a brothel, with Veronika playing the role of madam. Veronika, ostensibly Sick Boy's girlfriend, finds herself increasingly attracted to Renton, who gives Veronika a modern, updated version of his cynical "Choose Life" rap from the first movie—one of the best movie monologues I've heard in a while. This version, directed straight at Veronika by an earnest Renton, touches the young woman deeply. The two end up having sex.

Begbie, meanwhile, has his own subplot for much of the film. He manages to escape from prison through a fairly improbable series of events, and the only thing on his mind is getting revenge on Mark Renton. He does, however, stop to see his wife and now-grown son, who is off to college to learn hotel management, a career that Begbie scoffs at. Begbie invites his son along for a breaking-and-entering caper that ends badly; the son proclaims he has no stomach for crime and just wants to go to college.

So on one side we have Renton, Sick Boy, Veronika, and eventually Spud working together to create a brothel; on the other, we have Begbie, now a fugitive, tracking down Renton. These two plot lines must eventually converge, and they do: Begbie finds Sick Boy first, and Sick Boy, who also secretly wants to hurt Renton for his long-ago betrayal, fails to tell Renton that Begbie is back. Begbie is enough of a wild card that it's impossible to know what's going to happen next, which provides the sequel with a note of suspense.

All in all, though, T2 isn't quite the film that "Trainspotting" was. It deals with several themes, including addiction and nostalgia for a checkered past (T2 shows brief clips from the previous film), but it also shifts too much of its focus toward Veronika, who comes off as both an old soul, wise beyond her years, and that classic cinematic cliché, the hooker with a heart of gold. In the end, she ends up the "winner" in this sordid game of opportunity and betrayal, having realized that, as much as she fancies Renton, he's too mired in both the past and the bad karma that his friends generate. Veronika reaches out to Spud to run off with her—not because she's suddenly romantically attracted to him, but because she can see how innocent his soul is, and how deserving he is of a better life. Spud, however, remains faithful to his friends and elects to remain in Scotland, where he will continue pursuing a passion he discovered thanks to Veronika: writing stories about his mates' misadventures.

I came away from T2 wondering whether a sequel was even necessary. The movie was watchable, and it was interesting to see, for example, that Diane (the sexually blackmailing high-school student) had grown up to become a solicitor—quite the opposite of what she used to be. Some parts of the plot were utterly ridiculous, such as when Renton and Sick Boy try to scam some partiers and end up on stage, singing an ad-libbed anti-Catholic song. I also came away unsure of what T2's message might have been. Was it that we can't escape our fundamental natures? Once a junkie, always a junkie? Twenty years of successful living in Amsterdam means nothing once you're back in Edinburgh? I felt some disappointment at how most of our antiheroes from the first film had turned out, and as I mentioned earlier, the over-focus on Veronika felt unnecessary. "Trainspotting" is a classic for many good reasons, but T2 is going to end up as little more than a cinematic footnote, I'm afraid. Not a bad film, to be sure, but also nowhere near a great one.

*I was confused by this at first: in the first movie, Renton leaves Spud a stack of bills in a locker, and that stack looks as if it's only £2000 worth of bills. The sequel, however, goes with the idea that Renton had left Spud double that amount, and no one questions this. According to the Amazon Prime Video trivia that came along with the films, this was a continuity error—perhaps the only continuity error I've heard of where the inconsistency is visible from film to film, and not from scene to scene.

1 comment:

John from Daejeon said...

I was quite disappointed by "T2" in comparison to the original, but then I saw the real-life documentary, "Cartel Land (2015)," and even "Trainspotting" lost a lot of its unique luster in my eyes. "Cartel Land" goes to prove Mark Twain's adage that truth is stranger than fiction. It's also more violent, more vile, and more much more inhuman. And if more people knew the truth about the vicious killers that make up the cartels (that have infiltrated all levels of Mexican politics, government, and law), there'd be a series of walls being built between the U.S. and Mexico and other crime ridden places around the globe (maybe even around the city of Chicago).

BTW, many people point out that the real-life Mexican vigilante protagonist has some really big balls. Well, they aren't kidding, but this film's director and director of photography have even bigger ones as they put themselves in danger that is unimaginable to even the likes of Danny Boyle's in his fictional drug world.

It's not safe to watch at work because the crimes committed by the Knights Templar against many innocent bystanders are so atrocious that even I had to look away at times. The fake feces and world of "Trainspotting" at the time seemed quite shocking to me, but the fact that there is so much real violence against the innocent happening all around the world on a daily basis that is no longer shocking as many are now more worried about safe places from differing opinions and ideas on campuses and that those not using the correct non-binary pronouns should be locked up or publicly shamed.

The Mexican side of the documentary is the better half of the film, but together they create one hell of a bleak picture for the unarmed in this world's populace. Watch the doc and see for yourself just what kind of world we currently live in!