Ewan McGregor and Robert Carlyle in T2: Trainspotting.
Danny Boyle continues to be our most dazzling shallow director, and his brilliance is undimmed in the sequel to his 1996 breakthrough, Trainspotting. The new film is called T2 Trainspotting — not to be confused with the Schwarzenegger T2 — and it’s more fun than a barrel of junkies. It doesn’t have the youthful kick of its predecessor, but given the pervasiveness of addiction and suicidal ideation and despair it’s amazingly buoyant. Boyle makes movies about downer subjects — the downers in this case are literal — but his style and temperament seem more like the product of too many uppers. The man never sits still. He’s the only director who could make a film about a guy stuck in a crevice and forced to saw off his own arm and put in more whooshy tracking shots than in any five race car movies.
To be fair, Boyle’s ex-junkie protagonist is generally in motion. When we last saw Ewan McGregor’s Mark Renton, he was fleeing Edinburgh with 16,000 pounds of his criminal mates’ money. Twenty years later, he’s living in a white-collar world as an accountant in Amsterdam. But it’s quickly evident that he doesn’t have the heart to stay on that treadmill. One clue is that he’s shown having a heart attack on a treadmill. The next time we see him he’s back in Scotland: mid-40s, exhausted, getting a divorce, and finally ready to face his past.
Before he ran from Scotland, Renton left 4,000 pounds behind for his hangdog junkie pal Spud (Ewen Bremner). But he left nothing for his supposed best friend Simon, commonly known as “Sick Boy,” played by Jonny Lee Miller, now a professional blackmailer who dreams of opening his own bordello with his 20-ish Bulgarian girlfriend. Simon remains furious at Renton, but his ire pales beside that of the other fella Mark double-crossed.
Remember Begbie, played by Robert Carlyle? It’s hard to forget his shocked-open eyes, wiry body, and hair-trigger temper. Two decades in prison haven’t mellowed him. In his first scene, he sputters Scottish obscenities at a rate that demands subtitles. He wants to eviscerate Renton. And even though T2 Trainspotting is a comedy with elements of farce, Carlyle makes you believe that Begbie could and likely will strangle Renton with Renton’s own innards. He’s scarier here than he was as a vampire cannibal in Ravenous. He’s scarier than he was as a Bond villain. He’s so scary that the T2 in the title just might be a nod to The Terminator. It’s a fire-and-brimstone performance. And so damn funny, too.
Begbie dominates T2 even when offscreen, but there’s a nominal plot that centers on Renton, Simon, and Spud trying to raise money to turn Simon’s disgusting rundown pub into a classy brothel. Getting money proves less of a problem than holding onto it, given that Spud is on and off (but mostly on) the skag and Simon puts everything up his nose. Renton encourages Spud to do a sport — specifically, boxing, which is a hoot because Spud is such a puny, skeletal thing with a mouth that drops into a long oval when he’s stressed, as if his jaw had disconnected from the rest of his face. (Bremner is a little camp for my taste.) Boyle has Spud walk into a gym and then fantasize he’s bounding into the ring in black and white and slow motion with a title reading Raging Spud.
The gag gets a laugh but it’s, um, broad. Although T2 Trainspotting has a melancholy streak, a nostalgia for a time of crazy energy and resiliency, Boyle seems desperate to prove he has lost none of his youthful giddiness and that he can go home again. Syntactical gimmicks abound. The camera is all over the place, swooping down and tilting up. The pacing is irresistibly syncopated.
Well, I did resist a little, as I resisted Trainspotting in the mid-’90s. The film loomed so large — not as large as Pulp Fiction but close. No one before Boyle had combined such zany hijinks with so bleak and grotty a milieu. The young cast was magnetic, the storytelling playful, and the tone closer to American Pie than Drugstore Cowboy. Against this were all the shots of needles going into veins, a tragic overdose, and, in one unforgettably revolting scene, the image of baby who’d died from her junkie parents’ neglect. The weird thing, though, is that most audiences didn’t leave saying, “How depressing.” They said, “What a rush!” I liked the movie — who didn’t? — but felt the disconnection between its tone and content in my blood.
T2 has no dead babies or overdoses — which is odd when you consider that heroin and opioids are far more epidemic now (at least in this country, in both cities and rural areas) than they were in the mid-’90s. But heroin casualties in a movie these days would be harder to mix with farce. And it’s the farce that gives the movie its motor. What seems like an easy Viagra joke has a sublime — hilarious and horrifying — punch line. A scene in which pickpockets Renton and Simon get caught sneaking into a Loyalist dance hall builds to a great, macabre climax on a bare stage, where Renton improvises an anthem on the subject of Catholic genocide. A bit that features two characters in side-by-side bathroom stalls couldn’t have been bettered by Blake Edwards.
T2 Trainspotting would be even richer, though, with more and older women. Anjela Nedyalkova has charm and breezy timing as the young Bulgarian woman who counts on being the madam of Simon’s bordello, but she’s largely there as eye candy. The female Trainspotting characters are seen only in passing, Shirley Henderson barely at all, Kelly Macdonald in a delightful scene that’s over way too quickly. There’s a larger point to this: that the girls have moved on while the boys are desperate to remain boys. It would be better, though, if that didn’t apply to the director as well.