At one point in Danny Boyle’s sequel to his two-decade-old cult favorite, coke addict Simon, also known as “Sick-Boy” (Jonny Lee Miller), says of his erstwhile friend Renton (Ewan McGregor), who betrayed him twenty years ago but has now returned to Edinburgh, “I’m going to make him sorry he ever came back.” By the end of the picture he hasn’t really done so, but viewers might definitely regret having responded to the invitation to revisit the motley crew that makes up “T2 Trainspotting,” which also includes wide-eyed doofus Spud (Ewen Bremner) and mad-dog thug Begbie (Robert Carlyle).
Coming in the aftermath of the Thatcher era in Britain, the original “Trainspotting” was a fever dream of a movie, awash in the florid, hyperkinetic visual style that would become Boyle’s trademark as it mocked the time’s conventionality by cheekily observing Scotland’s low-life drug-dealers and small-time crooks. “T2,” by contrast, pretty much ignores any real social commentary to concentrate on the personal side of its quartet of deadbeat survivors, winding up curiously devoid of any larger meaning. It’s somehow appropriate that the movie ends with a penultimate triumph of sorts involving a goofy application to the European Union for an urban renewal grant. Given that the Brexit vote has rendered such programs moot, the plot becomes instantly passé.
The same might be said of the entire film, scripted by John Hodge with a passing nod, though not much more, to “Porno,” the 2002 sequel to “Trainspotting” by novelist Irvine Welsh. It begins with Renton returning to Scotland after two decades in Amsterdam. He visits his widowed father (James Cosmo), checking out the bedroom his now-dead mother kept exactly as he’d left it twenty years ago when he fled with the loot he and his comrades in crime had heisted, and then goes to reconnect with Spud, whose life—we’re shown in a brief montage—has totally collapsed. Last in line is Simon, who now runs an old, run-down bar with an attached whorehouse where his East European girlfriend Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova) is, it would seem, the only working girl. He holds a grudge against Renton that’s hard to overcome.
Meanwhile Franco Begbie, the wacko sparkplug of the original gang, escapes from prison and goes back to his flat, where his anguished wife takes him back, despite his intent to introduce his straight-arrow teen son (Scot Greenan), who’s planning to take a college degree in hotel management, to a life of petty thievery. (The police, it might be noted, apparently never bother to look for him at the apartment.) When Begbie eventually makes contact with Simon and Spud, it’s clear that his overriding purpose is to track down Renton and make him pay for his betrayal with his hide.
But they’re not anxious to help him, as it turns out. By this time Renton has confessed the truth about his own miserable circumstances, and joined with Simon in a plan to renovate a ramshackle old building into a high-class brothel. (The local gang lord, played by Bradley Welsh, will, however, have something to say about that.) He’s also steered Spud onto a new path, which includes—incredibly enough—a budding career as a writer.
Hodge and Doyle, along with cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle and editor Jon Harris, treat all this in typically over-the-top style, piling up montages of clips from the first film, dream sequences, flashblacks, brawls and chases in leading up to a big finale that includes another betrayal. It’s all done up with frenetic dash that reeks more of desperation than inspiration, with plenty of pauses for reveries about the old days that evoke regret about past misdeeds even as the guys are planning new ones. The picture boasts a heavy dose of nostalgia, in fact, which makes “T2” feel, despite all the empty visual virtuosity on display, a pretty vacuous trip down memory lane.
But the cast certainly throw themselves into the action with abandon. McGregor manages to be both vaguely hopeful and resigned while pulling off the part’s more athletic demands, while Miller brings his patented brand of slick menace to Simon. Bremner and Carlyle, by contrast, throw the slightest hint of subtlety to the wind, chewing the scenery without mercy—Bremner with his bug-eyed goofiness and Carlyle with equally bug-eyed rage. Sultry, laid-back Nedyalkova is a welcome addition to the proceedings, but apart from her the women—including returnees Kelly Macdonald and Shirley Henderson–have little more than walk-ons. Irvine Welsh, incidentally, has a brief cameo.
“Trainspotting” might have been a revelation in its day, but twenty years on “T2” is but a stale reminder of what once seemed new and fresh.