Okay, maybe you can go home again. But you might not want to chance it after seeing T2 Trainspotting, Danny Boyle’s 20-years-later sequel to his incendiary 1996 cult classic about white punks on dope in the depressed industrial town of Leith, Scotland. Boyle’s prodigal protagonist has cleaned up his act, only to find the unclaimed baggage of his misspent youth still waiting for him the minute he sets foot back on his native soil.
Based on the Irvine Welsh novel, the first Trainspotting was a molten social comedy with a nasty streak. It didn’t glamorize its junkie anti-heroes (who were a pretty sorry lot), but observed in bracing, scatological terms, why they turned to heroin as an alternative to middle-class banality. An anti-drug campaign of the era, exhorting users to “choose life!” was roundly mocked in the film, equating that idea with choosing a starter home with a fixed-rate mortgage and dental insurance—which paled in comparison to the nihilistic bliss of a heroin high.
But Boyle, the characters, and the actors who played them are all 20 years older now. The fact that they’ve survived another two decades is miraculous in itself, but beyond that, their relationships with each other are still driven by the same animosities and grudges. Scriptwriter John Hodge borrows a few elements from Welsh’s Porno, the author’s own follow-up novel to Trainspotting, but most of T2 is an original Hodge story about what happens when Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) comes home to Leith for his mother’s funeral, 20 years after betraying his mates, big-time, at the end of the first film.
Mark doesn’t do drugs any more; he’s more of a gym rat, trying to stay in shape. Spud (Ewen Bremner), the sweetest, most harmless of his old pals, is still a junkie, recently unemployed, and long separated from his wife and son; Mark’s surprise visit interrupts a suicide attempt (a gross, but funny scene). When Mark urges him to kick the habit and channel his compulsions elsewhere, Spud starts writing the unexpurgated story of their lives together.
Sick Boy, now called Simon (Jonny Lee Miller), has inherited his aunt’s decrepit pub and the three or four elderly barflies who call it home. His drug of choice is now cocaine, which he snorts constantly, fueling his dream of turning the pub into an upscale “sauna” (code name for a bordello) run by his girlfriend, Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova), a young Bulgarian prostitute. In the meantime, he attempts to extort financing from upstanding citizens he photographs upstairs in compromising positions with Veronika.
Complicating matters, as usual, is violence-prone Francis “Franco” Begbie (the ever-menacing Robert Carlyle). He’s been in prison for 20 years, and when he’s denied parole yet again, he breaks out—just in time for a few way-too-close encounters with Mark, the mate who stole forty thousand pounds of illicit drug money from them all and moved to the Continent.
Like its predecessor, T2 is loud, profane, pulsing with music, and often caustically funny. Franco despairs that his son is choosing hotel management over a life of crime. Mark goes into the sauna business with Simon because he doesn’t know what else to do with the life recently extended by a stent in his heart. (To get a bank loan, they describe their venture as “an artisanal B&B.”)
The new millennium provides a catalogue of new social ills for Mark to rail against: “Updating your profile, Instagram, blogging, slut-shaming.” But this time around, he talks himself back into the hard-won wisdom that one might, in fact, choose life. This centerpiece speech is delivered with wicked precision by McGregor, who embraces the return to his star-making role with relish, even as Mark faces up to the wreckage of his past.
Director Boyle tells the tale with his usual kinetic, stylistic verve, including interwoven time frames, and occasional floating subtitles for the knottier bits of Scottish dialogue. There’s nothing mellow about T2 or its characters, but it’s a savvy companion to the first film if you like your biting social commentary spiced with a dash of rue.
*** (our of four)
Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller, and Robert Carlyle. Written by John Hodge. From the novels by Irvine Welsh. Directed by Danny Boyle. A Sony Pictures release. Rated R. 117 minutes.