Okay, I’m showing my age here, but for members of the so-called “Slacker Generation” and/or “Generation X” (take your pick), I would submit that there was an entirely unofficial (as was our wont) “Holy Trinity” of films that came out in our early twenties that spoke directly and immediately to us in a way that pandering, condescending trash that Hollywood marketers were aiming in our direction (I’m looking at you, Reality Bites) could only hope to — three flicks that captured the (not to be too grandiose) zeitgeist of the times; the flavor, immediacy, and ethos of the “now” that went on, as all things do, to become just another “then.”
The goofy thing about this “Big Three” is that only one of them actually featured characters who were our age at the time, but whatever, we’ll get to that in short order. For now, the rundown : Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction came first and was (and remains) the biggest of the bunch. I don’t think anyone — even the film’s detractors — would debate that. It was a genuine large-scale cultural phenomenon, it solidified its auteur as one of the spokespeople of his (our) generation, all that. It was huge. It was groundbreaking. It was bigger than its own hype, and its hype was considerable. It was The Real Deal.
Next up came perhaps the most unlikely of the bunch : Joel and Ethan Coen were bona fide heroes for “20-something” cinephiles in the 1990s, but Fargo catapulted them to the top of Hollywood’s “A-list” by finding a way to be “mass-audience-friendly” without compromising its creators’ idiosyncratic vision. Again, it was a fairly massive cross-cultural sensation, but its sensibilities were very much of a piece with the “slacker” set’s view of life, or at least life as we perceived it to be at that time. Which may or may not have been an accurate perception, but that’s entirely — or at least almost — beside the point. It was really cool, and being cool was what it was all about — even if it was uncool to admit that.
The third and final member of the triumvirate, as you’ve no doubt already guessed, was Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, the bad-attitude, gleefully nihilistic runt of this particular celluloid litter. More punk than grunge, more gut-punching than gut-spilling, this flick swapped out the sudden and shocking gross-out violence of its two just-barely-forebears in favor of shocking gross-out bodily -function gags, it knew — hell, wallowed in — its place in the gutter, and it came out of nowhere (okay, Scotland) to hit its audience like a jolt of the”white lightning” its junkie protagonists would no doubt be familiar with provided they were actually, ya know, real people.
Here’s the thing about all three of these films, though — sure, they’ve aged, but I would contend that each of them has aged pretty darn well, and what’s more, they all stand on their own just fine. Okay, yeah, Fargo has spawned a spin-off TV show that seemed like a clever enough idea for one season then quickly out-stayed its welcome with two, but come on : no one was clamoring for a sequel to any of them. But when Irvine Welsh, upon whose novel Trainspotting was based, went back to the well for both sequels and prequels on the printed page, you knew it was probably only a matter of time before Boyle followed suit on the silver screen.
And so he did. 2017 has seen T2 Trainspotting hit British cinemas first, and then make its way over to this side of the pond so that we can all see what became — or is now becoming — of Mark “Rent-Boy” Renton (played, of course, by Ewan McGregor), former “Sick Boy” Simon (Jonny Lee Miller), “still just” Spud (Ewen Bremner), and the one and only Begbie (Robert Caryle), who is generally answering to the name of Franco now, but is probably, if you care to believe it, even more psychotic than ever. So, yeah, the band’s back together — but do they still sound any good?
That’s the question those of us who love the original have been nervously asking ourselves, but as it turns out we needn’t have worried — too much. Oh, sure, there are some stylistic “call-backs” to the first film that have clearly been inserted purely for nostalgia’s sake, but Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge address that right in the script fairly early on, and besides, “the more things change, the more they stay the same” is one of the major themes underlying this entire enterprise. The circumstances of all our principal characters may have changed, but whether or not any of them have really moved on is open for debate : Mark’s been living in Amsterdam, but his illusion of middle-class normalcy is in the midst of falling apart around him when he makes his return home; Simon is trying to make it as a low-rent blackmailer with his Bulgarian girlfriend, Veronika (Anjela Nedlaykova) as bait since the pub he inherited isn’t exactly doing bang-up business; Spud’s still a smack-shooting mess who’s barely surviving (and very nearly doesn’t right out of the gate here in the only scene that can rival its progenitor for sheer “eeewwww” factor); and Begbie — well, shit, he’s in prison. Where else would he be?
Okay, yeah, everyone wants payback — in cash and blood — from Mark for ripping them all off last time around, but once that particular hurdle is overcome (alright, one person can’t let go of his grudge no matter what; bet you can guess who) everyone falls back into their traditional roles with disturbing ease : Mark and Simon, ever the scammers and schemers, are undertaking to pull off their most audacious hustle yet but can’t trust either each other or, crucially, themselves, while Spud does all the dirty work without complaint, not exactly happy to be along for the ride, but along for it all the same. All the leads get back under the skin of their characters effortlessly, but there are a few intriguing wrinkles added into the mix that prevent the film from devolving into either pure navel-gazing self-examination or a “retro-for-its-own sake” thematic and narrative cul-de-sac. Spud, for instance, has a hitherto-untapped creative side that may just hold the key to his salvation, and Mark and Simon may both be getting played by a third party who’s even better at the con game than either of them. So fear not, we’re not just running in place here, even if old habits (including, at least for one scene, heroin) do die hard.
Admittedly, “big questions” abound here (all of us 40-somethings wonder just how we got here, but how much more unanswerable does that become when you probably never expected to make it this long in the first place?), but that doesn’t mean we can’t have ourselves a good time just the same — Begbie’s prison break (oops! Spoilers!) and Mark and Simon’s fleecing of a pub packed to the gills with drunken loyalists are all kinds of way-off-color fun, so sure, there’s enough bat-shit lunacy to remind us of just what sort of people we’re (still) dealing with here — there’s just less of it. These guys are middle-aged, after all, and maybe that’s the message Boyle and company are really aiming to address at the end of the day : whether you figured you’d be around to see it or not, whether you can make peace with it or not, whether any of it makes any more sense than it used to or not, age comes to us all. It’s gonna deal with you regardless of whether or not you can deal with it. So, ya know, worry about it all you want, I suppose — just not all the time.
Or do. It’s your call. Your choice. But I would say choose to look back on the past — even immerse yourself in it every now and then — without wallowing in it. Choose to accept your fate without being resigned to it. Choose to make of things what you can, while you can. Choose to go for one more big score even if you fall short, one more crazy night even if it might be your last, and one more stupid risk just because it’s there to be taken. Choose to reject happy endings, sad endings, or endings of any sort for as long as you can; to remind yourself of why your old friends bring out the best and worst in you at the same time; to resist going quietly while you can still make a little bit of noise. Choose to buck against inevitability even if it’s inevitable that you’ll buckle, to keep on dreaming no matter how small your dreams become, and to give a well-deserved middle finger to anyone who stands in your way. Choose T2 Trainspotting for the most unexpectedly — maybe even accidentally — life-affirming film you’ll probably see all year, and choose to love it, every minute of it, just as much for what it is as for what it reminds you of.