Danny Boyle loves his bag of tricks: the split-second cuts and the techno-pop and the crazy, strobing light show. Like a director of TV commercials who has only 30 seconds to sell a story, Boyle hypes everything. Take the gimmicky Who Wants to Be a Millionaire structure of Slumdog Millionaire, or Leonardo DiCaprio night-swimming through phosphorescent plankton in The Beach. Or, most notable, take Trainspotting, Boyle’s 1996 breakthrough. In bringing to life the junkies and reprobates of Irvine Welsh’s novel, Boyle devised a carnival of jokes and pop anthems and sudden sadism. It might have been a wee bit soulless, but it hit a nerve—or certainly a vein.
Boyle’s career has been predictably restless since then, jumping from sci-fi (Sunshine) to Bollywood lite (Slumdog) to overbearing kiddie cuteness (Millions). Oddly enough, or maybe not, his opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympic Games was possibly his most impressive achievement, a dazzling exercise in cramming all of British popular culture in a giant blender and spewing it back at an overstimulated yet grateful audience. Given his wide-ranging curiosity, it’s a little surprising that Boyle embraced a sequel. But here’s the hopelessly titled T2 Trainspotting, and a chance to see what’s happened to characters who held little promise of evolving much from the first film.
It’s amazing any of them are still alive. But Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor, oddly sedate) kicked heroin and has been in Amsterdam since absconding with the loot from the original film. Spud (Ewen Bremner) remains hooked, living alone in even more squalid circumstances than before. Begbie (Robert Carlyle) is in prison, not surprisingly—his means of escape provides an early high point of typically appalling/hilarious violence. Sick Boy, aka Simon (Jonny Lee Miller), is no longer on heroin, but ingests pretty much anything else. He has a Bulgarian girlfriend, Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova), with whom he runs a blackmail operation. Everybody’s mad at Renton, but when he returns to Edinburgh after 20 years, old accounts are settled and new schemes are hatched. The other main player from Trainspotting, Mark’s girlfriend Diane (Kelly Macdonald), is given an amusing but too-short cameo, an indication of just how bro-centric the T2 world is.
The sequel is at its best when Boyle and returning screenwriter John Hodge amp up the satire. Mark and Simon have an uproarious session at a club for Loyalists, Protestant Scots who love the Queen and still celebrate the 1690 Battle of the Boyne. Meanwhile, Spud discovers his artistic side, and Begbie—well, Begbie is still a psycho, as Carlyle’s performance remains on full fury throughout. But even Begbie has a moment of acknowledging the delicacies of parentage, a sign that the Trainspotting franchise has gone soft.
But maybe it always was. Boyle frequently opts for sentimental resolutions, and T2 is no different, for all its bodily fluids and torrid profanity. The movie actually tries to get around this by going self-conscious on the subject of nostalgia—at one point Simon calls out their reminiscences by accusing Mark of being “a tourist in your own youth.” If T2 had real teeth, and not just a series of wicked shocks, it might take this idea and hit it hard. But it can’t find the edge. In one scene Mark revisits his celebrated “Choose Life” monologue and revs up a new one—but he comes across like a scold now, taking jabs at cellphones and social media. Suddenly T2 sounds like somebody’s parent.
If the film is basically empty, there’s still something there for fans, thanks in part to Boyle’s hyperactive style. At least half a dozen scenes create authentic gallows humor, and Boyle’s maniacal focus on detail never flags. In Mark’s simple act of putting on an LP, each step is highlighted: the precise way a slab of vinyl slips out of its sleeve, the exact clatter of an album placed onto a record player—Boyle takes seven or eight shots to lovingly set up the process. And then he denies us the song. It’s just another trick in the arsenal of a filmmaker who may be too clever for his own good. T2 Trainspotting, Rated R. Opens Fri., March 24 at Guild 45th and SIFF Uptown. firstname.lastname@example.org