The iconic opening shot of director Danny Boyle’s 1996 "Trainspotting" was of junkie hoodlum Mark Renton’s feet pounding the pavement while he and his mates bolted down an Edinburgh street pursued by police. The crashing introductory drum salvo of Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” blared beneath this twisted tribute to “A Hard Day’s Night,” announcing a new U.K. youth phenomenon a good deal dodgier than those cuddly Mop Tops from Liverpool.
If you came of age in the '90s, chances are “Trainspotting” was all you talked about that summer. The movie was a brash blast of defiance, its amoral, drug-addled anti-heroes sneering at the audience’s complacent middle-class comforts, twisting the feel-good bumper-sticker aphorism “Choose Life” into something like a slur.
“T2 Trainspotting,” Boyle’s awkwardly titled 21-years-later sequel, begins once again with a shot of Mark’s feet mid-sprint. Still played by Ewan McGregor, this time the now-40-something Mark is on a treadmill at a fancy franchise gym, running in place when he collapses from a heart attack. Welcome to the wonders of middle age.
“At one time you’ve got it, and then it’s gone forever,” explained Jonny Lee Miller’s suave, peroxide-blonde Sick Boy in the first film. “All walks of life. George Best for example. Had it, lost it. Or David Bowie, Lou Reed, David Niven, Malcolm McLaren, Elvis Presley…” Now he can add his own name to that list, as these days Sick Boy has gone back to calling himself Simon and runs his auntie’s ramshackle pub between failed get-rich-quick schemes and bumps of cheap cocaine. He’s busy fouling up an ill-advised blackmail scam with his Bulgarian sex-worker girlfriend Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova) when Mark — the best friend who betrayed him 20 years ago — comes walking through the door.
Still electrifying, the original “Trainspotting” was an angry young man’s tale of reproach and burning bridges. A follow-up to the ghoulishly funny 1994 thriller “Shallow Grave,” it was the work of a blazingly talented creative team that flamed out in public acrimony shortly after 1997’s ill-fated “A Life Less Ordinary.” When one considers how Boyle, McGregor, screenwriter John Hodge and producer Andrew Macdonald have spent varying portions of the past two decades refusing to speak to each other, it makes sense that “T2” is a film of uneasy reconciliations. The first movie was about Mark escaping from his peers and his past. The sequel is about coming to terms with them.
I guess it might not be technically accurate to say this installment is more depressing than the previous one that had all the overdoses, AIDS and a dead baby on the ceiling, but what “T2” lacks in trauma it makes up for in an exhausted spiritual malaise that knocked this writer for a loop. I doubt the film will work nearly as well for anyone who didn’t have a poster of these guys hanging on their dorm room wall, but its viscerally deflating to see how these icons of the “Cool Britannia” generation grew up to be such sad-sack losers. Nobody even went out in a blaze of glory; they all just trudge from one disappointment to another. “T2 A Life More Ordinary” would be an acceptable title.
Of the old gang, Ewen Bremner’s hapless Spud is the only one still hooked on the skag. He’s also the only one who might be able to transcend his sordid past and turn it into something positive. Spud’s been writing about the crew’s early adventures in short stories that sound suspiciously like the work of Irvine Welsh — the author from whose sprawlingly filthy books these films were judiciously culled. Bremner’s still got the best bug eyes in the business, and he gets the big gross-out gag in a movie considerably less enchanted with bodily fluids than the original was.
Mark and Simon mend fences fairly quickly, the latter hatching a ridiculous scheme to score some sweet EU development funds so they can build a waterfront brothel in Leith. Mark seems to be going along with it for the same reason he came back to Edinburgh in the first place — he’s got nothing better to do. Early in the film McGregor kills with a cutting monologue, explaining how after his heart surgery he couldn’t handle being told he’s got 30 more years to live. “Two or three I could fill up maybe, but what the [expletive] am I gonna do with 30?”
“T2” teasingly nails the very specific sadness of guys who stayed too late at the party and now find themselves waking up in their 40s when all that settled-down stuff they used to sneer at suddenly doesn’t seem so bad anymore. They know they look ridiculous going after girls half their age, but do it anyway because there’s nothing left besides chasing the old cheap thrills. (Jonny Lee Miller fastidiously dyeing his trademark locks before a night on the town is one of the movie’s most inspired sights.) There’s a glorious scene in which Mark and Simon fleece a pub full of bigoted Protestant loyalists, and snatches of songs from the first film’s soundtrack begin to bubble up and then fade away — as if almost recapturing past glories that remain maddeningly out of reach.
But the film is nearly sunk by its treatment of Robert Carlyle’s Francis Begbie. That terrifying drunkard who haunted the previous picture is fresh out of jail and aching for revenge on Mark. There’s a bit of satirical stuff about how bruisers like Begbie are obsolete in our technologically evolved criminal underworld, but the filmmakers are mostly, disappointingly content to treat him as a slasher movie villain. (Which is too bad, because I wanted a scene of old Franco being a huge Brexiter.) “T2” climaxes with a disastrously overscaled action sequence that betrays the thoughtful material that came before. It’s like if John Cassavetes’ “Husbands” had the same ending as Steven Seagal’s “Under Siege.”
And yet, when the movie hits, it leaves a mark. Boyle and cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle’s most beautiful flourish is a shot of poor Spud, walking down the street alone while a scene from the previous picture is projected on a white brick wall behind him. We watch along with the character as his younger self and all his unfulfilled promise run briefly into focus, and then vanish again into the distance.