No doubt that Trainspotting is one of the quintessential films of the 90s. But it's more than that. It's also Danny Boyle and Ewan McGregor's big breakthrough, it's the film that grounded modern British gangster cinema (just compare it to early Ritchie films), hell, even Underworld's international success was in part kickstarted by this film. But most important of all, Trainspotting is a film that's still an absolute joy to watch almost 20 years after its initial release.
It's not easy nailing a book adaptation, but with Trainspotting Boyle set out to prove it wasn't quite impossible either. I must admit that I never finished Welsh' book (the Scottish accent was just a little too demanding for me), but from what I've read the film comes rather close to the core of its literary source. Not happy with just adapting the book though, Boyle made Trainspotting into a landmark itself, adding a filmic layer that still feels fresh to this very day.
I admit that I have a pretty big soft spot when it comes to Britsh accents and dialects, so there's definitely a little bias here. Still, the Scottish language is this film is so outspoken, juicy and vivid that it became a bona fide asset rather than a gimmicky distraction, especially when combined with the witty and fast-paced monologues the main character fires at the audience at regular intervals. The "choose life" intro and outro monologues are simply legendary and have earned their place in a small shortlist of best and most memorable scenes of the 90s.
The film itself follows a group of four friends. Rather than build up a life they lose themselves in drugs (heroin mostly), living from one hit to the next. Renton is the smartest of the bunch, but even he has trouble escaping from the clutches of drug-induced bliss. While there is an underlying plot, it's merely an excuse to follow the mischief and extremities of this group of four, though you can at least expect a proper conclusion.
Boyle is known to be a very visual director. While this was already visible in Shallow Grave, with Trainspotting he upped the stakes. Fast-paced editing, freeze frames, beautifully framed shots and some crazy camera angles make for a very lively film. It's clearly the work of someone who was actively working on establishing his visual signature and it still holds a lot of its initial charm. That said, his style has been copied, matched and improved since the release of Trainspotting.
The soundtrack is smart selection of pop tracks that helps to identify the generation leap that runs underneath the film. While Trainspotting starts off with some 70s and 80s rock tracks (and generous references, like the Lou Reed one), it gradually shifts into 90s electronic territory, with groups like Bedrock, Ice MC and Leftfield all getting their moment of glory. The definitive track of the soundtrack is Underworld's Born Slippy though, which Boyle's uses to absolute perfection in the film's climax all the way through to the final monologue. This is how you do a proper soundtrack.
To top it all off, the cast of Trainspotting is quite the colorful bunch. McGregor will forever be remembered as Renton, Carlyle nailed his Begbie character and Welsh himself appears as the sketchy Forrester. But it's Ewen Bremner that takes home first prize as Spud. He never really made it as big as McGregor or Carlyle, but he did manage to portray one of the craziest, weirdest and goofiest characters I've ever seen on film.
In the final 30 minutes the film picks up some crime influences and builds up to an agreeable climax, but that's not really what Trainspotting is about. Instead the film's appeal lies with the antics of the four main characters. Stand-out scenes include the toilet scene, the breakfast scene and Spud's job interview, all moments that have nothing to do with advancing the plot.
While the overall atmosphere of the film remains quite light and playful throughout, mind that Trainspotting is not without its moments of gut-wrenching drama. There's a baby scene that's pretty nasty and not all the characters are blessed with a happy ending. While effective and well executed, these remain solitary moments of drama in an otherwise pleasantly insane film.
Boyle's breakthrough film is pretty crude and edgy, but it's also a cinematic wonderland about a bunch of drug-craving friends, drenched in thick accents. Add Koen Mortier's Ex Drummer as the perfect companion piece and you can ready yourself for an evening of degenerate fun. And even though the film's age is starting to shine through ever so slightly, it's still a great watch with a perfect cast, a superb soundtrack and some neat visual trickery.