“Trainspotting” became an unlikely cultural touchstone when it was released in 1996. What should have been a downbeat, depressing story about a bunch of Scottish heroin addicts somehow became a spirited if cynical portrait of Thatcher-era Britain.
It was the characters who made the film an instant classic. Led by Ewan McGregor’s Mark Renton, a junkie whose unsuccessful attempts to get clean formed the Sisyphean spine of the narrative, this bleary band of ne’er-do-wells were alternately charismatic, heart-rending, fascinating and repulsive.
According to director Danny Boyle, he’d always wanted to do a sequel to “Trainspotting,” which ended with Renton making off with more than his share of the ill-gotten gains of a drug deal. The problem was that, 10 years later, his ensemble of actors looked too young and healthy to play hard-bitten middle-aged drug addicts convincingly.
Even 21 years later, McGregor and his co-stars look improbably hale and hearty in “T2 Trainspotting,” a follow-up that captures the brio and brotherly angst and affection of its predecessor, if not its clarion sense of urgency. Having gotten sober (and married) in the Netherlands, Renton returns to Scotland, where he renews his ties with Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), Spud (Ewen Bremner) and the hotheaded Begbie (Robert Carlyle).
Like all reunions, this one is fraught with unresolved tensions and past grievances, as well as soul-crushing guilt.
“T2” bristles with Boyle’s signature flourishes — an early scene features funny on-screen titles to help translate Begbie’s thick Scottish burr — as well as quick nods to the original film (remember the Worst Toilet in Scotland?).
“T2” is spiked with flashbacks to the boys’ youth — often by way of lyrically scratchy home movies — that make even their most sordid exploits ring with artisanal authenticity. The challenge here, as in the first film, is not to flinch from their depravity, but to humanize them enough that viewers still manage to care.
“T2” doesn’t feel like a necessary film as much as a respectful and respectable exercise in fan service. It’s a “Beauty and the Beast” for filmdom’s edgier other half. They’re getting a terrific movie in the bargain, even if the stakes feel exponentially lower this time around.
Rated R for drug use, pervasive crude language, strong sexual content, graphic nudity and some violence. 1:58. Kentucky.