Review: Danny Boyle, Ewan McGregor return for another hit in “T2 Trainspotting”

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The 1996 cult classic “Trainspotting” was released 12 years prior to director Danny Boyle’s Oscar-winning “Slumdog Millionaire” and three years before star Ewan McGregor became a Jedi. Based on Irvine Welsh’s acclaimed novel, its scuzzy, rough-around-the-edges aesthetic fit its energetic, seat-of-your-pants vibe. It holds up as a surreal, vibrant, sometimes horrifying look at youth, friendship and drug culture in 1990s Edinburgh.

Trading raucous energy for a creak in the bones and reckless optimism for an ache in the soul, Boyle and his  cast are back for “T2 Trainspotting,” which reunites former junkie Mark Renton (McGregor) with Sick Boy (Johnnie Lee Miller), Begbie (Robert Carlyle) and Spud (Ewen Bremner) two decades after he ran off with $16,000 they scored from a heroin sale. As expected, they are not overjoyed to see him. Spud’s never left heroin and is suicidal. Sick Boy is bitter over Mark’s departure and planning to start a brothel, and he’s traded in heroin for cocaine. Begbie’s in jail, his temper still a millisecond from snapping. Some have kids, one has a wife. None have left Edinburgh, save for Mark, who returns from Amsterdam after suffering a heart attack.

In full disclosure, I should confess that my first-ever viewing of “Trainspotting” was just three days in advance of seeing the sequel; it was originally released when I was in high school and, somehow, went unseen by me for two decades. So even though I greatly enjoyed Boyle’s film and appreciate its place in indie history, I don’t have the affinity many do for these characters, nor have I spent the past 20 years wondering what happened to them.

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But even so, I still found “T2 Trainspotting” — horrible title aside — an engaging and surprisingly affecting return. Boyle has said he waited so long to do a sequel because he wanted the time to be right. He’s actually succeeded, delivering a film that hearkens back to its predecessor with fondness and reverence, but also makes that nostalgia its reason for existence. It’s less the continued adventures of four wacky heroin junkies and more like Richard Linklater’s “Before” series, but with less exquisite banter and more vomit.

That’s par for the course with “Trainspotting” though, which gained notoriety for Boyle’s surreal, often disgusting imagery. From a dive into the “worst toilet in Scotland” to a haunting hallucination involving a dead baby, “Trainspotting’s” visuals seared on the mind. The film’s chronicle of four junkies didn’t hide from the horrifying realities of drug abuse, dragging us through the squalor of a heroin den and rubbing our faces in the pains of withdrawal. But the film was never drudgery because it was fueled by the camaraderie and charisma of its four leads, and propelled by Boyle’s experimental, energetic direction. It was the rare drug movie that felt joyful and alive without glamorizing drug use; while I remember the toilet and the baby, I also remember that crazed, joyful look in McGregor’s eyes, and the way that Boyle lined up pitch-black humor with tragic elements. Two decades on and it still feels dangerous and alive, even if it spawned a plethora of imitators.

“T2” doesn’t try to recapture the original’s energy, settling for a more melancholy tone, but the original is never far from its thoughts.  Boyle weaves in images from the first film as well as grainy “home footage” from earlier in the characters’ lives as the four men wrestle with their past and try to figure out just how in the hell they wound up in their 40s with nothing to show. As they fall back into the same rhythms, the director also sneaks in echoes of scenes and shots from its predecessor, although he also shows restraint; in one of the film’s most effective moments, Renton returns to his childhood bedroom and begins to play one of his own records, turning it off almost immediately, unable to bring back old moments. The film captures the tone of men who have reached adulthood and found it wanting and go searching for it in the wreckage of their youth (Renton’s update of the first film’s “choose life” monologue puts an angry, regretful button on this idea).

I’m not quite as old as McGregor and company, but my forties are within grasp. And as I get older, particularly when life gets tough, my mind returns to my past. I look up old friends on Facebook, revisit journals and return to old haunts. Do I hope that the spark of joy and optimism will return by regressing? Am I looking for something I lost when those old friendships went away? Was there another path I should have pursued? Despite the wacky shenanigans, outlandish humor and occasional vulgarity, it’s this weighty, middle-aged angst that comes through the loudest in “T2 Trainspotting,” drowning out the British pop on the soundtrack that tries to rile us up.

The characters may have grown up (with the exception of Spud, they all go by their first names now), but their lives are still entwined with the past. Mark is haunted by his betrayal, his abandonment of his friends and family, and the girl he still holds a candle for (Kelly McDonald in a brief reprise). Sick Boy is bitter over losing out on what he thought was his one big score, holding down a failing pub and reduced to blackmailing congressmen to fund his brothel. Begbie is in prison, stewing over losing $16,000, and when he gets out he finds that his son isn’t eager to join his pop in the family business (burglary). And Spud, perhaps most tragically of all, is still hooked on heroin, having ruined his chances at success through stupid mistakes and alienating his wife and son.

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Setting the film 20 years after the first means the actors bring years and weight to their roles. With the exception of McGregor, they’re grey, wrinkled and haggard. Although some are clean to varying degrees, they still carry the scars of their youth. But as they come back into each other’s orbit, they light up. Fueled sometimes by anger, sometimes by joy and sometimes by illicit substances, their younger selves are unmistakable under the wrinkles and bald spots. McGregor and Miller have an engaging, juvenile chemistry, constantly living in the past and alternating between betrayal of and love for the best friend they’ve ever had. Carlyle is hilariously terrifying as the violent, vindictive Begbie. But Bremner, as Spud, steals the entire film. Spud, who was basically comic relief in the first film, is this film’s emotional anchor, a tragic figure who becomes the only member of the crew to channel the past into something healthy and hopeful. Despite the McGregor’s top billing, this is really Spud’s redemption story, and Bremner is a funny, magnetic and endearing presence here.

In the last 21 years, Boyle has turned into one of our most visually inventive, stylistic directors, and he seems reinvigorated here. He brings the tricks and stylistic hallmarks he’s learned throughout his career — the floating subtitles, superimposed images — to the table, and seems eager to step back into a less formal, more improvisational mode of film-making. “T2” looks less dirty and ragged than its predecessor, but it still keeps the humor and bizarre imagery intact (thankfully with no babies or filthy toilets). A sequence involving Renton and Begbie encountering each other in side-by-side toilet stalls is a beautiful piece of slapstick and a rowdy singalong at a pub is the film’s comedic highlight. Like before, Boyle balances tone deftly, letting the humor and angst coexist, often within the same scene. “T2” doesn’t move as briskly as the first (and it’s about 30 minutes longer), but it still has its own propulsive charm, particularly when the characters are just interacting and causing trouble.

There’s a wisp of a plot that involves Renton helping Sick Boy scam the funds to start his brothel, but truthfully the film is strongest whenever it doesn’t feel like it has anywhere to be. Aside from Spud’s storyline, it works best when at its most episodic. There’s a touching scene where they mourn the lives lost to their youthful habits, a pub fight that is both funny and brutal, and some brief chases that are energetic and funny without being too tied to the film’s ongoing narrative. When it slows down to talk about Sick Boy’s goal or focus on a love triangle involving Renton, Sick Boy and a young lady named Veronika (a non-starter of a character), it drags. In the film’s final act, Boyle finally loses control of tone altogether, letting the whole thing devolve into a mishmash of comedy, thriller and action before the film closes out. Just like the first film, which is much stronger in its largely plotless first act, the attempt to tie these characters into a conventional storyline robs them of their energy and causes the film to feel too familiar at a time when it should be feeling its most alive.

But as far as legacy sequels go, “T2 Trainspotting” is not just one of the best. Alongside maybe only “Creed,” it’s the only one to tackle aging head-on and it finds new things to say obsession with youth. It’s a heartfelt, well-intentioned sequel in an age of studio cash-ins. I was happy to take another hit.

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