Ten years ago, director Danny Boyle huddled with his frequent screenwriting collaborator John Hodge to talk about a follow-up to 1996’s “Trainspotting,” the exuberant, Oscar-nominated ode to bad behavior that launched their careers and made Ewan McGregor a movie star.
Irvine Welsh, the Scottish author whose novel had inspired the first movie, had written a sequel, “Porno,” that gave the filmmakers promising material: A decade after the events of the first book, the heroin-addicted anti-heroes were now having hair-raising adventures in the pornography industry.
But although Boyle and Hodges got as far as a rough draft of a screenplay, something didn’t feel right.
“I thought it just wasn’t good enough,” Boyle says. “That movie would have made you feel like you’d been cheated. It was commercial, sure, but there was nothing in it that felt like it was necessary. It was just a rehash of the first one. So we abandoned it.”
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By the time the 20th anniversary of “Trainspotting” was looming, Boyle had a Best Director Oscar — one of eight Academy Awards earned by the 2009 Best Picture winner “Slumdog Millionaire.” He was wrapping up production on “Steve Jobs,” the drama about the life of the Apple CEO, written by Aaron Sorkin, which was the first time Boyle had directed a movie based on material he didn’t play a role in developing.
The prospect of giving a “Trainspotting” sequel another go now became more enticing. “It felt like I would be coming home again and building something out of nothing,” Boyle says, although he admits he didn’t really expect much to come out of knocking around ideas with Hodge and Welsh again.
“We all felt like we were just going to go through the motions and not really make a sequel, because people’s affection for the first film had sustained for a long time — ‘Trainspotting’ has a reputation — and you besmirch that with a poor sequel,” Boyle says. “But while we were talking about it, the fame of the first film gave us the idea for a new movie. ‘Trainspotting’ was about being young and not caring about anything. That sneering, rebellious tone is accepted when you’re a certain age —it’s a rite of passage. But you can’t still be doing that when you’re in your mid-40s. You might try to relive your past and have some fun, but you ultimately can’t keep doing that.”
“T2 Trainspotting” opens with Renton (McGregor), now clean and domesticated and living in Amsterdam, returning to Edinburgh after the death of his mother. He looks up his old friends Spud (Ewen Bremner), who is still wrestling with addiction, and Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), who is still angry about having been cheated out of his share of a lucrative drug deal at the end of the first film.
Renton’s homecoming is the opposite of warm — only his newly widowed father is happy to see him — and there are ghosts of his former, destructive lifestyle everywhere. They beckon to Renton like sirens: He can’t even listen to the opening beats of Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” without triggering bad impulses. Everyone is now middle-aged and dealing with the consequences of their youthful drug habits. Renton has had a heart attack scare. Sick Boy is sterile. Spud is suicidal. And the violent, ill-tempered Begbie (Robert Carlyle), who circles the movie like a shark preparing to strike, is impotent.
Unlike “Trainspotting” — which relied on Renton’s voice-over narration, effectively making him the central character — “T2 Trainspotting” is a true ensemble piece, showing us the story from the point of view of each of the protagonists. We spend time at home with Begbie, who’s befuddled by his son’s intent to enroll in college. We follow Spud as he revisits some of the locales from the first movie and starts writing about his experiences. We tag along with Renton and Sick Boy as they sing their way out of a tight spot at a Loyalists’ bar (one of the movie’s comic highlights) and dance to Queen’s “Radio Gaga” at nightclubs that are bigger and more crowded yet less lively and fun than they used to be. Age and experience bring familiarity: As Sick Boy puts it, they’re acting like tourists in their own youth, and nostalgia is pleasant but ultimately pointless.
There is a plot of sorts — a complicated scheme by Sick Boy and his prostitute girlfriend (Anjela Nedyalkova) to open a brothel — but “T2 Trainspotting” is mostly a character study of damaged people trying to reconcile their troubled pasts and find a motivation to move forward. The movie is melancholy and subdued, lacking the electrifying juxtaposition of squalor and style that propelled the original. Boyle, a director who is incapable of creating a dull image, still pulls off some inspired setpieces, including a scene set inside a bathroom stall that masterfully blends physical comedy and suspense.
“Trainspotting,” too, had a memorable sequence inside a bathroom stall (specifically, “The Worst Toilet in Scotland”), but the shout-out to the previous movie feels earned — it’s thematically relevant because it reminds us of the ways in which these characters have changed, and in the ways in which they have not. Boyle occasionally indulges himself too much: A humorous bit involving Spud’s attempt to take up boxing, shot as an homage to “Raging Bull,” is too goofy. In its climactic 15 minutes, “T2 Trainspotting” turns into something close to an action picture, which feels tonally wrong.
The movie is at its best when it flirts with becoming a meta-sequel — a film whose characters know they’ve been in a movie called “Trainspotting.”
“When Spud remembers the experience of them running away from the store at the beginning of the first film, it’s more than a memory: It’s something that exists in the culture,” Boyle says. “I’m 60 years old now, and I’ve learned that time isn’t always a straight line. It looks back on itself sometimes. This movie does that, even though it’s very dangerous, because you can lose the viewer if you push it too hard. You have to carve out the independence of the new film while addressing the previous one. That’s what we were keen to do, and I hope we achieved it.”
Rating: ☆☆ 1/2
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller, Ewen Bremner, Robert Carlyle, Anjela Nedyalkova, Kelly Macdonald, Shirley Henderson.
Director: Danny Boyle.
Screenwriter: John Hodge.
A TriStar Pictures release. Running time: 117 minutes. Vulgar language, violence, gore, nudity, sexual situations, drug use, adult themes. In Miami-Dade: Aventura; in Broward: Palace.