Any honest, accurate sequel to “Trainspotting,” the 1996 film based on Irvine Welsh’s flinty-funny novel about heroin addiction, love, hijinks and capers going wrong in Edinburgh, would have to be even more littered with corpses than the original.
Twenty years on and most of these needle-sharing losers would be dead — and not just walking dead, with the faces and physiques that betray years of abuse.
But that would be a mighty short Danny Boyle film, and totally spoil the nostalgia and affection he and his cast felt by revisiting that story, that place and that time. Amusing and toothless is what they went for.
So in “T2 Trainspotting,” Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) comes home for a brief visit. He took off with the loot from the caper from the first film, heading to Amsterdam to get his life on track. That’s like retiring to North Carolina to quit smoking, but the irony’s intentional (no doubt).
He’s a married accountant, and catching up with the former Sick Boy, Simon (Jonny Lee Miller), he discovers his old mate has moved on to cocaine and digital blackmail schemes with a Bulgarian hooker (Anjela Nedyalkova), and that he’s never forgiven Renton for the betrayal.
“I’m gonna make him sorry he ever came back.”
Begbie (Robert Carlyle) still needs subtitles for us to understand his slang-riddled Scots accent. He’s spent years in prison, which probably extended his life. He, too, hasn’t forgiven and forgotten Renton.
Only Spud (Ewen Bremner) has maintained the lifestyle, clinging to the Horse as his only true friend, losing touch with his one-love Gail (Shirley Henderson) and their son despite AA meetings and an desperate desire to kick.
Whatever Renton’s intentions, he is lured back into this world. He’s just another nostalgic Brit swamped in a culture that lives in the past, “a tourist in your own youth.” He’s not unaware that “the world changes, even if we don’t.” Change is all around them, the Leith and Edinburgh of decay is mostly gone.
They’re all in their late 40s, and they each figure out the only way to feel alive is to recapture that past — the razor’s edge of drugs, casual relationships and violence that marked their youth.
Boyle revisits the early hallmarks of his style; extreme close-ups, artsy effects, pop-jangled score. He quotes from the original film’s dazzling soundtrack and iconic images. hiking the same hills, bathing in the changing textures of the times and wallowing, here and there, in nostalgia.
There’s one properly seedy pub, which the lads scheme to turn into a bordello (helped by government grants), and one flashy club scenes where those sing-along-Scots revel in the yesteryear of Queen and”Radio Gaga.”
And there two killer moments, though nothing on a par with the vile toilet or baby dying of neglect of the first film. Here, we have McGregor and Miller singing to weepy Catholic hating Orangemen and McGregor explaining, in a breathless riff full of sarcasm, rage and wit, the “Choose Life” motto of Thatcherite Britain, mock-embraced by Wham!, ridiculed in the original “Trainspotting.”
“Choose slut-shaming. Choose never learning from your mistakes…Choose 9/11 never happened.”
McGregor settles nicely back into Renton, and Miller shows his mileage in some early scenes (dyeing his hair gives us the Sick Boy of old). Carlyle’s Begbie is thick-featured, has lost some sex drive, but not the testosteroned urge to head-butt his way out of a jam.
And Bremner’s Spud, the longest survivor of the deadly addiction, turns out to be the one with the best memory, the bard for their “lost youth.”
That’s meant ironically, too, I suppose. But it’s not nitpicking to see that this is a seriously defanged affair, a sequel that lacks the punch or novelty of the original. Novelist Welsh and Boyle do little to bring gender equality to this world. Putting a new starlet into the gang’s midst upsets the balance and steals screen from Henderson, and in a glorified cameo, Kelly Macdonald (in a single scene, giving the film’s best performance)– female survivors of that epidemic.
It is a story of a reckoning — several reckonings — that is afraid of actually wrestling with the consequences of betrayal and self-abuse, of letting its characters naturally mellow or die because they can’t.
It may give fans like me a bit of the warm and fuzzies, seeing these lads again. But if “Trainspotting” was alternately life-sapping and life-affirming, giddy and grim, hilarious and alarming, “T2” never achieves either the same highs or lows and is all the poorer for it.
MPAA Rating: R for drug use, language throughout, strong sexual content, graphic nudity and some violence
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller, Anjela Nedyalkova, Robert Carlyle, Ewen Bremner, Shirley Henderson, Kelly Macdonald
Credits: Directed by Danny Boyle, script by John Hodge, based on the Irvine Welsh novels. A Sony/Tristar release.
Running time: 1:57