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Empire Magazine (2008) Greatest Movies List - #316: Trainspotting

In the 1990s Hollywood directors were the kings of cinema, whether it was for big summer blockbusters or smaller independent films. Guys like James Cameron or Michael Bay would blow up the screens while Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino put the emphasis on snappy dialogue that created relatable characters for the moviegoers. Then in 1996, as if to scream “we can do this too,” Danny Boyle released Trainspotting in the United Kingdom.

Based on a novel by Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh, the movie took the world by storm despite having no explosions, a cast of actors who were relatively unknown and a budget that today could barely pay for the catering of a Transformers movie. Furthermore this is not the story of young people going to college to enter a life full of promise, but about young heroine addicts meandering through the streets of Edinburgh. Despite introducing these characters during an energetic montage set to Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life, Danny Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge in now way glamorize their lives.

Before I finally caught up to it a few years back on Netflix, Boyle’s film had reached a legendary cult status. While in college I would hear about scenes from the movie, in particular “the baby scene” in which Mark “Rent Boy” Renton (Ewan McGregor) decides to finally kick heroine, which it turns out can have very nasty effects on the body such as pains, sweating and hallucinations. Unfortunately for Rent Boy, one of those painful hallucinations involves a dead child he and his friends failed to save during their numerous drug trips.

Despite this undoubtedly dark chapter in the lives of these characters, there are many entertaining and engaging moments throughout Trainspotting. In addition to McGregor’s star-making performance, there is also the manic performance of Robert Carlyle as Francis “Franco” Begbie, who is not drug addict but a psychopath who feels most at home when starting a bar brawl for next to no reasons. If you are not Scottish you will have a hard time understanding this man, but once he starts hitting people with a pool cue you definitely understand what kind of person he is.   

Then there is Jonny Lee Miller as Simon “Sick Boy” Williamson, who when he is not doing heroine has very interesting things to say about life and the career of Sir Sean Connery. As a long-time James Bond fan, I believe I would have lots to talk about with Sick Boy. The problem is that on top of being a drug user he is also somewhat of a con man whose schemes can get his friends in trouble.

Ultimately that is the saddest thing about most of the characters in Trainspotting. These are all very capable people who could get their lives together if they wanted to, but they instead they are more likely to end up down a path of self-destruction. There is a scene in which for plot reasons Rent Boy has to start using heroine again and by this point you have learned there is no such thing as “just one more hit” with addicts. This summer the Canadian government is planning to legalize marijuana as a recreational drug, but heroine is definitely one narcotic that should stay banned. Lucky me, I am afraid of needles.


Since the movie’s release most of the cast have become major actors both in the U.K and in Hollywood, and I have read Danny Boyle could direct the next James Bond. Not bad for a low-budget movie about heroine addicts. Then of course last year the gang got back together in the aptly named sequel T2 Trainspotting. I have not seen it yet, but I firmly intend to if only to see if these guys can finally get it right this time.  

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