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Look Homeward, Junkie

Choose sequels. Choose never letting go. Choose getting the band back together for one more lap around the worst toilet in Scotland. Choose Danny Boyle, Ewan McGregor, and Iggy Pop drums. Choose a long life.

(TriStar Pictures)
(TriStar Pictures)

The wittiest moment in T2 Trainspotting comes early on, when Mark “Rent Boy” Renton — the heroin addict turned dealer played with slightly stunted cunning by Ewan McGregor — returns to his family home in Edinburgh after two decades in hiding from the best friends he ripped off at the end of the original film. Holed up in his childhood bedroom, he gazes at the locomotives on the wall and flips through his teenage record collection, slipping a favorite 45 out of its sleeve. The millisecond or so of crashing backbeat that escapes the turntable before Mark impulsively stops playing the song is more than enough for us to play name that tune. It’s Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life,” which Danny Boyle once used to sum up his hero’s insatiable appetite for sensation.

With apologies to Underworld’s unstoppable “Born Slippy,” “Lust for Life” was Trainspotting’s anthem and one of the most memorable musical cues of the ’90s. (Boyle also directed a heavy-rotation music video that did more to introduce Generation Y to the erstwhile James Osterberg than a thousand cool older brothers and their cassette collections.) In a junkie comedy that used needle drops like neurochemical mood enhancers, Iggy’s loving ode to vice as virtue peaked, and Mark’s inability to listen to the song that used to spike his pulse is suggestive of a mojo that’s been misplaced, or maybe lost altogether. In this scene, as in many others, T2’s action and images are so self-reflexive that the film becomes an allegory of itself, a sequel caught somewhere between chasing its predecessor’s shadow and shadowboxing against its heavyweight legacy.

Trainspotting was released at the height of both “Cool Britannia” — that mid-’90s surge of pop cultural pride in all things U.K. that encompassed everything from the phony Beatlemania of Oasis to the Spice Girls’ post-Thatcher Girl-Power flexing — and the post–Pulp Fiction indie film boom (the film’s American distribution was handled by Miramax). The film transcended its modest budget to become a generational touchstone, a hybrid of bristling expressionism à la Lindsay Anderson’s If… and O Lucky Man! and kitchen-sink realism with even crustier plumbing. Not even noted commode-fetishist Stanley Kubrick ever topped “The Worst Toilet in Scotland,” and Trainspotting’s swirling admixture of viscous fluids, vicious humor, visceral horror, and last-call existentialism — all faithfully transplanted from the source novel by Irvine Welsh –connected with kids on either side of the Atlantic.

Trainspotting didn’t just wear its influences on its thrift-shop sleeves: It rolled them all the way up for a shot in the arm. When McGregor scurried away at the end of the original film with a bag full of cash, a film of exclamation points was suddenly punctuated with a question mark. The mystery of what this driven, resourceful ne’er-do-well could do with his ill-gotten gains extended to Boyle as well; for character and filmmaker both, the possibilities seemed endless.

Cut to 2017 and Boyle has become the very thing that Trainspotting’s wasteoids once passionately railed against. He’s a thoroughly respectable middle-aged bloke (with an Oscar in his back pocket).

Boyle’s best movie is still his 1994 debut, Shallow Grave, which has some of the gory, shoestring showmanship of early Sam Raimi and nary a boring shot or edit to speak of. In a way, genre has always been his forte: Trainspotting went so far as to parody The Exorcist during a hallucination scene, and the stripped-down Romero-isms of 28 Days Later hold up better than most other millennial walking-dead thrillers (the hypnosis-filled heist thriller Trance is pretty nighty as well).

His one previous attempt at recapturing the laddish buoyancy of Trainspotting, 1997’s A Life Less Ordinary (another collaboration with McGregor) was a modish disaster, and for all the stylistic restlessness of the films since — including a full-bodied embrace of digital cinematography resulting in the spattered palettes of Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours — Boyle’s pent-up energy rarely breaks through a fundamentally conventional approach to character and story. The surface experimentation of Steve Jobs, with its multiple film stocks and aspect ratios piled on top of a banal, let-us-praise-great-men screenplay by Aaron Sorkin, belies its essential conventionality. It’s easy enough to imagine Mark Renton sitting through a matinee and then adding the experience to his scornful stream-of-consciousness inventory: “Choose Oscar bait.”

T2 is sprier and more alive than any of Boyle’s recent efforts, and the messiness is welcome, especially when it’s being sprayed right in our faces. After Mark finally gets up the courage to face his mates, he arrives just in time to stop Spud (Ewen Bremner) from taking his own life. He ends up projectile vomiting inside the plastic bag he’s wrapped around his own head. It’s a shocking burst of gross-out humor that doubles as a breath of fresh air. Renton and Spud’s friendship was the emotional core of the original Trainspotting, where Boyle smartly exaggerated the physical disparity between two Ewa(e)ns, playing McGregor’s limpid beauty against Bremner’s elongated oddness. The contrast has only deepened with time, but Spud’s homuncular appearance, which is exaggerated even further via stylized lighting and Bremner’s expert physical acting, isn’t being used as a punch line. He wears the disappointments of his drug-addled adult life on the outside, while Mark — who barely looks like a year has passed, much less 20 — has disguised and internalized the rot that’s infected his settled life in Amsterdam.

The return-of the-prodigal-son setup, with Mark attempting to make amends with Spud and also Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) while dodging the vengeful Begbie (Robert Carlyle, looking thicker in the middle but still well-chuffed to reprise his most famous role) is just a pretense for Boyle to reference, restage and rehash scenes that worked like gangbusters the first time around. Bebgie chasing Mark down the cobblestone streets that figured in Trainspotting’s mad-dash opening sequence is an evocative metaphor for the the idea of traveling the same road twice (and McGregor gets to mimic the maniacal smile that first made him a star). Elsewhere, John Hodge’s script provides the dramaturgical equivalent of fan service, letting Mark deliver an updated version of the “Choose Life” monologue, ragging on such topical maladies as social media and rustling up Kelly MacDonald for a cameo lampooning her previous incarnation as club-kid jailbait (she tells Mark that his newest fling is “way too young” for him).

These callbacks are as cozy as can be, but the overall tone is surprisingly solemn, culminating in a group field trip out on the moors, steeped in funereal fog and dialogue. “It’s just nostalgia,” chides Sick Boy as Mark gazes teary-eyed into the middle distance. “You’re like a tourist in your own youth.”

His words undercut any residual reunited-and-it-feels-so-good sentiment while also hitting the proverbial nail so squarely on the head that Boyle and Hodge might consider formally apologizing to the nail. There’s a fine line between trying to come to terms with the past and just wallowing in it, and at times it’s hard to tell if T2 is making this point about its characters or obliviously illustrating it.

The answer, probably, is a little bit of both, and T2 keeps betraying its own lack of necessity more and more as it goes along (and at two hours, it’s plenty long). It’s hardly a spoiler to reveal that “Lust for Life” — Iggy’s and Mark’s — can be repressed for only so long. Boyle finally does what comes most naturally to any victory-lapping rock star trying to give the faithful their money’s worth. He just plays the hits.