Perhaps unique among his contemporaries, director Danny Boyle has sculpted a filmography that’s aesthetically distinctive without being beholden to any particular genres or themes. For better and for worse, every new Boyle production hurls a stylistic buzz saw into a different formula; he injects a speed freak’s glee into the survival saga, the prestige biopic, and the dystopian zombie film. The filmmaker’s oeuvre doesn’t have many ideological through lines, but it’s the work of a man who savors a challenge.
What happens, then, when Boyle decides to remix himself? T2 Trainspotting is a belated sequel to his zeitgeisty 1996 breakthrough about Edinburgh heroin junkies facing the consequences of their addiction in a post-Thatcherite society that’s left them to waste. Set 23 years after Trainspotting, T2 seeks to recreate its forbear’s blend of grime, bliss, rebellion, and cynicism in a more globalized Scotland. So it begins with Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) on the run once again—but on a treadmill in a gym. He’s evidently clean but hasn’t quite outrun his past, a point Boyle punctuates with a nasty face plant and a flurry of grainy images of playground antics and teenage misadventures.
Without apparent motivation, Renton returns to Edinburgh a generation after pocketing the proceeds of a drug deal and absconding to Amsterdam. His friends have failed to nurse their resentments: Danny, a.k.a. Spud (Ewen Bremner), is still an earnest, oafish addict and a disappointment to his family; Simon, a.k.a. Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), blackmails wealthy professionals while tending to his dead father’s pub, and his smack habit has been replaced by an appetite for cocaine and grudges; the manic pugilist Begbie (Robert Carlyle), meanwhile, seems to have evolved from a sociopath to a genuine psychopath after a stint in prison. Some have children and some don’t, but they’ve all become weary and fatalistic, and their reunions come attendant with an uneasy mix of nostalgia and duplicity.
A sequel like this is innately about legacy: Are these men prisoners of their pasts, slaves to their stylish but ultimately quite bleak sense of nostalgia, or is this a story about waylaid Scotsmen attempting to either transcend or assimilate into a newly globalized society? T2 is intelligent enough to suggest these questions, but at every level of narrative and craft, it neglects to offer any answers to them. The result is a diverting but utterly wishy-washy sequel. John Hodge’s screenplay, freely adapted from Irvine Welsh’s novels Trainspotting and Porno, exerts a lot of unnecessarily labor in order to wrangle its characters together into another misbegotten crime scheme.
They revisit their regrets as they orbit around Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova), Sick Boy’s crafty and seductive Bulgarian-immigrant business partner. Boyle milks this nostalgic trip for all it’s worth, liberally cutting to scenes from and recreations of footage from his 1996 film. T2 makes a minimal effort to update Trainspotting’s iconic soundtrack for a new era, instead broadly opting to tease the audiences with stray notes from Iggy Pop, Underworld, Brian Eno, Young Fathers, among others. There are explicit nods to literally every memorable image in the earlier film; Renton’s “Choose Life” monologue, which bookended the original, is given a particularly groan-worthy reprisal, taking the form of a wan condemnation of social media culture rather than a more pungent indictment of Western Europe’s rightward drift.
Boyle doesn’t manage to create anything as new or searing as a plunge into a toilet or a baby crawling across a ceiling, but his bag of tricks yields plenty of fitful pleasures. The film’s most poignant subplot involves Spud’s attempts to write himself out of his torpor, and his apartment (much like the film) becomes a shrine to mid-1990s squalor. His windows become lined with memoiristic fragments scrawled on legal paper, which cast a highlighter-yellow glow on everyone in the room. Boyle liberally uses canted angles and freeze frames in a somewhat desperate effort to keep his audience from facing the film’s glum and rather dull narrative, but he does wonderful work with projections, covering walls and cars with nature videos and clever jokes.
The heart of T2 lies in the relationship between Renton and Sick Boy, but their rocky reunion is another victim both to the wheel-spinning innate in Hodge’s script and Boyle’s relative lack of fresh ideas. Both Miller and McGregor manage to keep the film relatively buoyant and charismatic, conveying the barbed nature of their characters’ new partnership while affirming their lifelong bond. (Miller, in particular, does some great gestural work, chewing gum with utter savagery when he’s not snorting coke.) But in following up a fairly incisive criticism of the U.K.’s social safety net with this woebegone tail of old grudges and nostalgia, T2 lets Renton and Sick Boy down, taking a few easy potshots at old, Protestant racists without positing an idea of where these men fit into a society that’s become more diverse and less tolerant.