Twenty years ago, I saw Trainspotting and thought, “Holy crap!” Danny Boyle’s drama about dead-end Scottish heroin addicts detonated on the scene in 1996, and at a time when British cinema was dominated by well-manicured period films and kitchen-sink dramas, Trainspotting’s flashy, postmodern, hallucinatory style heralded a voice for the new century. Since then, Boyle has largely vindicated that early promise, so he’s earned the right to go over his old grounds in T2 Trainspotting, the sequel that reaches us this week. Fortunately, ’90s nostalgia isn’t the only thing he’s after.
Based loosely on Irvine Welsh’s literary sequel Porno, this movie begins with Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) returning to Edinburgh after a long absence. He’s now a modestly successful accountant in Amsterdam, but he started his new life by stealing £16,000 in drug money from his pals at the end of the first movie. When Spud (Ewen Bremner) and Sick Boy a.k.a. Simon (Jonny Lee Miller) first see Renton again, they both physically assault him. One can only imagine what Begbie (Robert Carlyle) will do when he escapes from the prison where he’s been for the past 20 years.
The film frequently juxtaposes shots from the 1996 movie with the present day or simply copies them, and once again Boyle evokes this junkie’s world so strongly that you can smell the vomit and urine. Renton’s famous “choose life” rant gets an update here as well: “Choose Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and a million other ways of spewing your bile across the faces of people you’ve never met.” The actors’ repartee is so finely honed that they seem to have spent all the intervening 20 years together, and no movies ever served as as good a showcase for Bremner’s pop-eyed befuddlement as these ones.
Much as these characters are caught up in their youth, the movie’s after bigger game, as it catches the way these middle-aged guys feel left out of the whirl of their country’s economy. This movie is haunted by ghosts, not least of which is the baby girl from the first movie whom Sick Boy allowed to die while he was getting high. The film climaxes with Begbie trying to murder Renton in a remodeled pub. Carlyle made Begbie into one of cinema’s scariest soccer hooligans in 1996, but he’s even more frightening here because you can see his own blighted childhood reflected in the way he belatedly tries to parent his son (Scot Greenan), who wears a tie and is studying hotel management at college. Begbie’s revenge quest isn’t merely driven by his insane bloodlust but also by the squandered opportunities and lost potential in his own life, something Renton comprehends.
As with the original, the dread comes laced with laughs, or perhaps it’s the other way around. There’s one hilariously stressful scene when Renton and Simon improvise a song for a crowd of ferociously violent Protestant sectarians, as well as a footchase when Renton chances to run into Begbie at a nightclub, where the slapstick comedy only adds to the feeling that someone’s going to die. Boyle and his characters have a few more wrinkles and regrets now, but they haven’t lost their rowdy energy and wit, qualities that keep the electricity going in T2 Trainspotting.
Starring Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Robert Carlyle, and Jonny Lee Miller. Directed by Danny Boyle. Written by John Hodge, based on Irvine Welsh’s novels. Rated R.