The belated sequel to the Scottish hit Trainspotting (1996) is a different kind of geezers-on-a-caper film. That's not to say its protagonists are elderly; two decades after the original, Renton (Ewan McGregor), Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), Spud (Ewan Bremner) and Begbie (Robert Carlyle) are solidly in middle age.
But to this crew of one-time heroin addicts, who propelled the first film to success with their live-fast-die-young energy, middle age is old. Offscreen, the counterculture icons have gone mainstream. It's difficult for viewers to forget that McGregor is now an international star, that Carlyle appears on ABC's family-friendly "Once Upon a Time" or that Danny Boyle, who directed both films, has an Oscar.
Partially based on Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting and its sequel, T2 asks: Will the team relive its youthful glories (and anti-glories), or simply reflect on them? The answer is both, and the split is ungainly. But, while T2 doesn't recapture the excitement of the original, it's a decent diversion.
Only one of the four principals has embraced bourgeois respectability: Renton, who fled to Amsterdam with the ill-gotten cash he stole from the others in the first film. Now a heart-attack scare motivates him to return home to Edinburgh, where his old friends give him a mixed reception. Sweet-natured Spud has returned to the junkie life. Sick Boy — who prefers "Simon" now — snorts cocaine and pulls cons with the help of his younger Bulgarian girlfriend (Anjela Nedyalkova). And the chronically violent Begbie has just broken out of the joint.
Not one to forgive a 20-year-old offense, Begbie is determined to make Renton pay for his betrayal. Simon, by contrast, vacillates between vengefulness and a sentimental urge to reconnect with his old friend. "You're a tourist in your own youth," he tells Renton acidly, but it's clear they both are.
Driven by these two contrasting subplots, the film is half thriller — complete with action sequences — and half rambling, bittersweet nostalgia trip. Boyle brings all the resources of his hyperactive, hyperreal style to bear on both, from jarring Dutch angles and bizarre close-ups to ghostly flashback images that float behind the characters like an ever-present mental movie.
The thriller plotline plays like a '90s Quentin Tarantino knock-off, and, as the film progresses, Begbie's psychotic irascibility becomes tiresome. There's better comedy in the scenes involving Renton and Simon's antics, and more poignancy in Spud's quiet struggle to stay clean, which emerges as the heart of the film.
The original Trainspotting marks a cultural moment that can't be called back. The first time I heard Renton's "Choose Life" monologue backed by Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life," I thought I finally understood how young people in the '60s felt watching Easy Rider. The message was simple (and nihilist): After listing all the accoutrements of prosperous living, McGregor declares, "I chose not to choose life. I chose something else."
The young Renton's choice — heroin — wasn't a rebellion so much as a slow suicide. But there's bravado in his opting out that T2 utterly fails to recapture. Naturally, there's a scene in which Renton delivers an updated version of his monologue. Only now he sounds like every single crochety pundit bemoaning the emptiness of online interaction: "Choose Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and hope that someone, somewhere cares."
The problem isn't that Renton is wrong but that he's no longer opting out, just complaining. If the film had zeroed in on his hypocrisy, it might have been more than an enjoyable time-waster about wasting time.