It's been 21 years since Danny Boyle and Ewan McGregor shocked audiences with that creepy dive into a fecal-fleeced toilet in Trainspotting, somehow making being a heroin addict a hilariously biting — albeit tragic — trip along the way. Part gonzo romp, part sad social satire, the stylish weave followed the vein-piercing antics of four Edinburgh junkies, slaves to skag and capable of doing anything to score their next fix — including ripping off their best mates. Not a great lot to throw in with, but a highly entertaining one as the fix-needing squabbles reached the near hyperbolic absurdity of the Three Stooges.
At the end of that 1996 adaptation of Irvine Welsh's cult novel, one of the four is dead and another runs off with the group's hard-earned drug money, which leave affairs in a difficult place to pick up, but Boyle and his screenwriter John Hodge, who adapted T1 and has collaborated with Boyle on several other projects, have a real feel for the lads and leverage Welsh's 2002 follow up, Porno to give the middle-aged blokes a shot at redemption before heading off for the nursing home.
We first catch up with McGregor's Renton (the guy who stole all the money and — as the film has it — ruined everyone else's life) now living in the Netherlands and who appears to have made good on his promise at the end of Trainspotting to change, but a small cardiovascular event trips him up (literally) and sends him back to Scotland where he learns his mom has passed. A quick check in with old pal Spud (Ewen Bremner) finds unhappy times for the sweetly pathetic user who's been unable to shake his monkey. The reunion is cemented by an uproarious eruption of vomit that becomes one of the film's most lingering images the same way excrement took center stage the last time. Next up on the reunion tour is Sick Boy (Elementary's Johnny Lee Miller) who half wants revenge but also needs Renton to help launch a massage parlor that'll offer happy endings to those in the know. Renton agrees partly out of remorse and old time's sake but also because he's drawn to Sick Boy's girlfriend and house-madam-to-be, Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova, who's sultry, yet knowing presence lights up the screen).
Then there's Begbie (Robert Carlyle), the mercurial malcontent ever on the brink of rage, happy to bash in strangers' heads for so much as a sideways glance. You'd think all that anger might have given him a heart attack by now, but no, T2 finds him in prison (because of his viscous beat downs and it unlikely to be released any time soon), a bit rounder and yet, perhaps all the more lethal. How he gets out requires an extreme act of masochism and when he finds out Renton is in town, his veins bulge and his eyes pop. If he could transform into the Hulk, he would, but this is a film about junkies (Begbie never used, violence was always his addiction) trying to go straight and there's no superheroes in sight, so Begbie has to settle for Michael Meyers mode as he stalks Renton through the Edinburgh nightscape.
Shot lavishly by Anthony Dod Mantle (Rush and 28 Days Later) and cut to a hip soundtrack that includes Blondie, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and, of course, Iggy Pop ("Lust for Life," the first film's anthem), all of Boyle's slick, kinetic style is on display here and then some. The use of CGI to translate the at-times indecipherable Scottish brogue, or the amount of floors Renton has to toil up because the elevator in Spud's seedy apartment complex is out, subtly adds poetic accent. Boyle and his crew should be proud.
Where the film falls down is not in its build up but in its come-around. The concept of four men living on the edge for decades (some with children and others that rely on them) is a piquant and inviting prospect. Can they ever find happiness and stability? Are they capable of making a regular go of it? Those questions and more never quite get answered as the film turns into the Begbie rampage show, which is too bad.
Other nagging questions: Why not Trainspotting 2? Aren't the filmmakers afraid of a mix up with that second "Terminator" flick more seminally embraced as "T2?" But then again, Begbie's psychopathic bloodlust seems eerily akin to one of those cybernetic machines sent back from the future on a surgical, do-or-die extermination mission. How this T2 ties up isn't satisfying enough, but just enough loose ends are left on the floor for another fix in 10 or 20 years.