Back in 1996, Trainspotting (adapted from Irvine Welsh’s 1993 cult novel) emerged as one of the great British films of the era, one that bristled with incendiary sense of style and danger. The daring dims a bit in T2: Trainspotting, though director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, Steve Jobs) and doctor-turned-screenwriter John Hodge try their damnedest to force lightning to strike twice. The passing of two decades can take the piss out of characters, especially the four slum-dwelling Scotsman who caught that generation-defining moment of youth-in-revolt set to a pulsating Brit-pop score (Elastica, Primal Scream, Pulp).
When we last left Mark “Rent Boy” Renton (Ewan McGregor), he’d betrayed his mates in a heroin sting, pocketed the cash and hit the road. Now he’s back in Scotland, after years of making a living in software retail in Amsterdam. Boyle introduces McGregor’s iconic character at the gym, falling off a treadmill in a scene that neatly shows how life has slowed our laddie boys down. Renton is back to make amends with the mates he robbed. First stop is Simon “Sick Boy” Williamson (Jonny Lee Miller), who runs a failing pub. He also blackmails rich johns with the help of his girlfriend Veronica (a terrific Anjela Nedyalkova), a Bulgarian sex worker who senses something deeper in the speed with which Simon forgives his long-lost betrayer. “You two should fuck each other,” she says, winking at their bromance. McGregor and Miller still play off each other beautifully.
Renton also finds his old mate Spud (a splendid Ewen Bremner), seeing the world through skag-tinted glasses and scoring dope from dealers half his age. It runs out he’s also quite a writer, which gives him many of the film’s best lines. Though the script, very loosely adapted by Hodge from Welsh’s 2002 literary sequel Porno, is laced with savage laughs, the prevailing tone is regret. Until, that is, it takes a scarily violent tone courtesy of Begbie (Robert Carlyle, still a force of nature), who has just busted out of an Edinburgh prison and eager to rain hell down on their old friend’s ass for running off with his money.
That’s the setup, which keeps alluding to the original with flashbacks and mixing the old and much-revered soundtrack with newbies from the likes of Wolf Alice and Young Fathers. In one scene, more wrenching than nostalgic, Mark pays a visit to his childhood home, pops an LP on the turntable (yay for analog!), and we hear the killer opening notes of Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” before he shudders, quickly lifting the needle off the record. The moment sums up the rush of blood that the Trainspotting quartet have lost in the intervening years. Nothing in the new film can match the shock and awe of the original’s toilet dive for an opium suppository and that dead-baby nightmare – but that’s the point. In showing the slowing effects of time (don’t mistake it for mellowing), much like what happens to Wolverine in Logan, Boyle and his actors offer a funny, touching and vital take on smack-addled Peter Pans facing the formidable foe of middle age.
At one point, Simon rightly accuses Mark of being a “tourist in his own youth.” This Trainspotting sequel may feel like that for many who raised a fist in unison with the first film’s fuck-the-world defiance. There’s a hard-won wisdom at work here, as well as an aching sense of loss. Any way you look at it, T2 takes a piece out of you.