Director: Danny Boyle
Stars: Ewan McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller
3 (out of 5) Globes
There are sequels that cash in on a hit. There’s the more noble breed that continue an ongoing story. Then there’s the third and best kind: The ones that are essentially “time travel movies.” That’s the term Ethan Hawke has used to describe Richard Linklater “Before” movies, where each installment is separated by enough years that when we catch up with the same characters/actors, everything has changed. (See also: the “Up” doc series, Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel series.) Rather than worry if the next episode lives up to the last, you treat each one like a high school reunion. You look around and see how people have aged. You think about how you’ve aged. You ruminate over your regrets, your failed dreams. You remember that time is a sadistic, greedy thief, and it will one day take your life as well.
This is a roundabout way of saying that, no, the annoyingly titled “T2 Trainspotting” isn’t as terrific as the 20-year-old first. But it is killer as a movie about aging, about the double-edged sword of nostalgia, about how choosing life — to borrow the original’s most famous phrase — is to dabble in delusion. The first film teemed with youthful vitality, or however you would describe skeezy drug addicts who preferred to lie in grotty heroin dens with needles dangling from their forearms. The second is a slower, longer, gloomier (though still darkly funny) affair. Three of the four have given up smack, but not much else has changed. The 40-something Renton, Sick Boy, Spud and Begbie remain ne’er-do-wells, deviants, reprobates. If they’re not slaves to skag, they’re still slaves to their awful natures.
Last seen nicking a drug deal haul from his closest mates, Ewan McGregor’s Renton enters “T2” by flying into Edinburgh for what he assumes will be a mildly tense weekend visit. He decamped for Amsterdam, where he got a job, became a health nut and settled down. At least that’s what he says. Whatever the truth is, he’s certainly doing better than Spud (Ewen Bremner), who’s still on the sauce. Johnny Lee Miller’s Sick Boy now goes by “Simon,” but his idea of growing up involves shifting from blackmail to opening a brothel with his Russian girlfriend (Anjela Nedyalkova). Begbie (Robert Carlyle) has languished in prison since the first. He hasn’t chilled with age, and when he breaks out, he can’t wait to gets his mitts on Renton, the frenemy who put him there.
Apart from a bit where Renton and Simon fleece a hall of Catholic-hating bigots, their exploits aren’t as madcap or freewheeling as they once were. The pacing lurches; every time things get cooking, it loses steam. But what would you expect from a film about middle-agers who can no longer get it up? This isn’t the cinematic equivalent of a band of AARP members plodding through hits they had in the ’60s. It’s a movie about how aging sucks, how time doesn’t necessarily make one wiser, how existence can feel like a jail sentence. There are some cutesy call-backs to the original — including, natch, an update of Renton’s “Choose life” rant — but most of them are coated in despair, done with the knowledge that it’s pathetic to go retro.
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Things aren’t all downer. The tone is still sickly funny. Here’s the “T2” vibe in a nutshell: Spud — his face so cragged and misshapen he looks like a puppet outtake from “The Dark Crystal” that Jim Henson deemed too disturbing — spends the opening stretches wanting to kill himself. When he tries, he’s interrupted by Renton. The intervention causes him to vomit in the bag wrapped over his head. The fear of trodding upon holy ground caused OG director Danny Boyle and writer John Hodge to find the film’s own, vital voice — more melancholic, more grotesque. Director Danny Boyle ramps up the disorienting shots, shoots through dirty glasses and windows, flattens out the color palette to pukey darks. “T2” is one ugly movie, outside and in. In an age when the past gets endlessly rebooted, it’s like a cold, bracing shot of vodka that reminds you that if things don’t necessarily get better, you can still have fun. Sort of.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge