How do you make a sequel to a film that defined a generation, a whole generation later? Do you define that generation anew, through thicker bifocal lenses, or do you pass the baton to a younger one? Both are valid approaches. Neither is quite the one taken by “T2 Trainspotting,” a shinily distracting but disappointingly unambitious follow-up to 1996’s feverish youthquake of a junkie study, which reunites its quartet of older, none-the-wiser Edinburgh wretches to say simply this: Middle-aged masculinity is a drag, whether you’re on smack or off it. As a fan-service exercise, Danny Boyle’s itchy, antic caper just about passes muster, reassembling “Trainspotting’s” core ensemble, soundtrack cues, and even its seasick camera moves for two hours of scuzzy nostalgia. Yet it largely passes up the opportunity to update the original’s caustic social snapshot of contemporary Britain — a region itself currently preoccupied with the rearview mirror, though the irony isn’t necessarily noted.
In the U.K., where Boyle’s film has opened ahead of its international premiere at the Berlinale, the throwback has clearly landed: the clumsily titled “T2 Trainspotting” grossed over $6.4 million in its opening weekend, an especially robust figure for a film saddled with a no-under-18s certificate. (Perhaps needlessly so: There’s little of shock value here, and certainly nothing to match the scarring impact of the original’s cot-death scene.) Whether audiences abroad will be quite as eager to plunge back down into the sewer is harder to gauge, with the material’s once-marketable rave-culture veneer having long since peeled away.
John Hodge’s screenplay is partially adapted from “Trainspotting” author Irvine Welsh’s less popular follow-up novel “Porno,” itself published back in 2002. The film’s repeatedly delayed genesis is apparent in the final product, which tosses some short-cut references to the present day (including some near-desperate social-media namechecking) into a story world that’s otherwise politically vague — a cleverly roundabout allusion to Scotland’s recent independence woes notwithstanding.
One early punchline, meanwhile, might strike a reactionary note for viewers entangled in the heated rhetoric of Brexit Britain. “Where are you from?” 46-year-old Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) dubiously asks a “Welcome to Edinburgh” greeter at the city’s airport. “Slovenia,” comes the reply. No, this isn’t the Edinburgh that Renton fled 20 years ago, the loot from a high-wire heroin deal in hand, at the end of the first film. The squalor of the mid-1990s has merely been replaced with another style of decay: Production designers Mark Tildesley (“High-Rise”) and Patrick Rolfe crowd frame after frame with an assortment of piled scrap metal and miscellaneous debris.
Neither is Renton quite the same man. The gangly skinhead of 1996 has grown into a buff, pensive-looking McGregor, first glimpsed running himself ragged on a swanky gym treadmill — a marked contrast to the frantic sprinting from police that opened the original, in the first of numerous visual and rhythmic parallels drawn by Boyle, cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, and editor Jon Harris. (Both collaborators have been added since the director’s “Trainspotting” days, and give the original’s dizzy, jagged aesthetic a more expensive edge.)
Per his iconic monologue — ill-advisedly rehashed here with moderately modish references to slut-shaming and reality TV — Renton cleaned up and chose life, which turns out to have meant little of the sort: two decades in Amsterdam working in stock management software for the retail sector. At a loose end following a recent divorce, he returns to his hometown to reconnect with old acquaintances for reasons Hodge’s arbitrarily ambling script never makes quite clear.
He can’t be surprised to find that former best friend Simon (Jonny Lee Miller) still holds a bitter grudge after Renton stole his share of the aforementioned drug money, though he’s not quite as violently vengeful as fellow wronged associate Begbie (Robert Carlyle), newly self-liberated from prison and on the bloody warpath. Meanwhile, their affably hopeless friend Spud (Ewen Bremner) observes quiveringly from the sidelines, still struggling to kick his heroin habit, and channeling his nervous energy into an unexpectedly authorial role in their joint saga.
In their efforts to delay a complete reunion of this sorry foursome until the eleventh hour, Boyle and Hodge keep a lot of plates busily spinning, without serving much meat on any of them. Tentatively reconciled, Renton and Simon embark on a project with the latter’s Bulgarian sex-worker girlfriend Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova) to convert a derelict pub into a brothel. In the most jarring shift from the original, the character of Begbie has been ramped up from reckless oddball to wild-eyed, scarcely plausible psychopath: In between bouts of knife-wielding rage, he attempts to lure his estranged, upstanding son into the underworld. The script makes strained digressions for other returning faces: A sleek Kelly Macdonald shows up for a single scene to offer haughty legal counsel to Renton, while Shirley Henderson is granted a single line as Spud’s mournfully weathered ex. Indeed, the new film’s rather high-handed treatment of its female characters may be its biggest letdown: At a push, one could argue that such sidelining reflects how the manchildren at its center have failed to evolve, though “T2” is entirely complicit in their dissolute uselessness.
Where “Trainspotting’s” dive into the void was targeted, bristling with snarky anger at a Conservative system that provided few lifelines, “T2” — despite landing in a Britain once more under divisive Tory rule — is mostly content to let its characters alternately indulge and excoriate themselves. So we tipsily gad about with them through a succession of chase sequences, luridly lit drug trips and, in one nod to quintessentially British farce, a naked dash in the countryside. Boyle and Dod Mantle jump-start this unwieldy vehicle with sheer formal brio, tricking it out with technique after technique after technique: 8mm flashbacks, projections, deranged Dutch angles, and, in what may be an early low for cinema in 2017, the application of Snapchat filters. It’s far from the director’s best-looking movie, but it may be his most visually eager.
Beneath all this surface, the connections are loose, the stakes are low, and those who have simply been waiting 20 years to hang out with these lads and their frequently crackling banter will be essentially satisfied from the moment Boyle teases us with the introductory clatter of Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” on the soundtrack. (All the most ubiquitous tracks from the original, once played to death in college dorm rooms, get some manner of resurrection here; it’s telling that next-generation contributions from the likes of Wolf Alice and Young Fathers serve proceedings merely as musical wallpaper.)
And it’s generally good to see them. It’s particularly good to see a still-peroxided Miller, rarely used to his best advantage these days, reminding the camera of his lithe, splintery star quality. That we feel we haven’t seen enough of him lately lends real poignancy to his reteaming with McGregor, who has been far less of a stranger to us. Returning to his star-making role, a cruising McGregor looks palpably less hungry and more polished than his co-stars in a way that sets the film quite appropriately off-balance, as it ponders the diverging fates of these perennially muddled men. As happens at any reunion with long-absent peers, however, a certain awkward silence can’t help but sink in. “T2,” for all its noise and neon, has little to say to fill it.