We all know the script.
Trainspotting was a game-changing sledgehammer of a film that shocked the nation in 1996, gave voice to an underclass, launched the careers of a quartet of actors and became an era-defining masterpiece.
We’ve heard this so many times, from so many people, for so long, that it’s become the law. It’s one movie you criticise at your peril.
So it was inevitable, perhaps, that many of the reviews of the newly released sequel, T2 Trainspotting, have come to a similar conclusion: not bad, but not the original. Actually, it’s far better than the original.
T2 revisits the four anti-heroes, Renton (Ewan McGregor), Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), Begbie (Robert Carlyle) and Spud (Ewan Bremner), finding them all at crossroads in their lives, staring down the barrel of middle age, their fates once again inextricably intertwined.
This is a black comedy, a revenge story, a will-they-won’t-they-pull-it-off scam caper, but more fundamentally it’s about what happens when your youth is over, what you do when your dreams haven’t come true and you’ve only got perhaps one roll of the dice left. When, to draw on Renton’s famous monologue, what you did choose didn’t turn out to be enough.
While the original was shocking in a ‘look at me, look at me’ way, this is more thoughtful.
Like its characters, it has more depth and is shot through with a profound sense of nostalgia and melancholy, delivered by subtle nods – and direct flashbacks – to its predecessor, as well as to earlier in the characters’ lives.
Now these people have long, complicated pasts and time is running out: Renton with his heart condition, Sick Boy with his failing criminal ambitions, Begbie on the run and Spud at the end of his sinewy drug-ravaged tether.
It’s all here – revenge, conciliation, forgiveness, plus scenes that rival any from its forerunner: a man falling backwards off a tower block, the compressive squash of a nightclub, a chance encounter in a toilet, to name just three.
There are also more laugh-out-loud moments, including a duet which Catholics may wish to fast-forward through and a Begbie erection (you have to be there). Oh yes, the music’s better, too (Wolf Alice’s Silk is a particular highlight).
There’s no showing off here, simply quiet, fine filmmaking – and hardly surprising, given that director Danny “Who needs a knighthood?” Boyle has 20 more years’ experience of his craft since he gave us our big screen introduction to these men.
Even Irvine Welsh, who penned the original book and the sequel, Porno, on which this follow-up is based, reckons T2 is better.
This is a film about being a son and a parent, about the joys and frustrations of accepting who you are. It’s about home, and the places and the people who make us. It’s about how the friendships we made at primary school define us, our desire to do better, to have another chance, and about living with the consequences of the decisions we make in our 20s.
Renton’s impish charm is much more layered than 21 years ago; Sick Boy – all cheap aftershave, cheap cocaine and hair dye – is brilliantly funny and furious; while Begbie adds regret to an emotional repertoire which previous only included violence.
It’s Spud, however, who steals the show with a masterful performance of gormless tenderness and likeability, as he captures the antics of his pals in scrawly, heartfelt jottings.
But mentioning that the original is anything less than a work of towering genius is like saying the Olympics are boring (they are) or Glastonbury is overrated (it is). If I hear one more wannabe Mark Kermode use the word ‘visceral’ in connection with the original, I may well stick my head in a toilet. The only thing that’s visceral is my boredom at listening to such clichés.
T2 is a more genuine film and Spud’s 20-year losing battle to get clean is more realistic – more respectful, somehow – than Renton’s slightly convenient ‘I’ve got some money and I’m walking over Waterloo Bridge so I don’t need drugs any more’ ending.
‘First there was an opportunity, then there was a betrayal,’ is a recurrent line in this film. There’s been an opportunity here for the last two decades to make this sequel. Some have deemed it a betrayal. They’re wrong. T2 is a work of quiet genius.
Roll on two decades of anticipation about T3.
• Tim Relf writes fiction under the pen name T.R. Richmond. His new novel, What She Left, is out in paperback from Penguin. @trrichmondbooks