Looked at logically, "T2 Trainspotting" should not work as well as it does. In fact, it shouldn't work at all. But up there on the screen, where it matters, the dark magic remains intact and logic be damned.
When it was released in 1996, the original "Trainspotting" seemed the very definition of a one-shot phenomenon. Exuberant and pitiless, profane yet eloquent, flush with the ability to create laughter out of unspeakable situations, this look at the dead-end lives of a quartet of Edinburgh junkies and thugs was a high point of contemporary British cinema and made stars of its actors — especially Ewan McGregor — as well as director Danny Boyle.
No one planned for a sequel. And making one a full 20 years after the fact sounds like a recipe for catastrophe. But it has largely turned out for the best. Boyle, screenwriter John Hodge and the original actors, all looking the worse for wear, have agreed to return, and they've made an age-appropriate story that joins a taste of the original’s vitality with a meditation on masculinity, aging and the inevitable passage of time.
That "T2" succeeds is a tribute to the way the first film, based on the novel by Irvine Welsh (who repeats a cameo as fence Mikey Forrester), created characters of such vitality that they remain in the actors’ bones to this day.
These include the feckless Spud (Ewen Bremner), still a hopeless heroin addict all these years later; the devious Sick Boy, now known as Simon (Jonny Lee Miller), who has traded heroin for a business where he mixes blackmail with cocaine; and the still-terrifying psychopath Begbie (Robert Carlyle), known for doing people, not drugs. And of course McGregor's ringleader Renton, who ended the first film by walking off with a criminal payoff that was supposed to be split four ways.
Having this quartet return looking every bit of the 20 years that's passed has an emotional impact that no green-screen special effect can match. These characters have clearly lived some of the questions the film explores, from the inevitability of aging to the advisability of trying to hold onto the past, and there is no substitute for that.
Because the characters are so strong, a powerhouse plot wasn't really necessary, and though "T2" (the title a playful nod to the Terminator films) has a final third that's a bit weak, it does not matter.
As screenwriter Hodge accurately told Sight & Sound magazine, "You need a bit of a story, but not too much, because they're not those kind of people. They are chaotic people, and stuff happens and stuff doesn't happen."
What plot "T2" has begins with Renton returning home after 20 years of expatriate life in Amsterdam, aghast to see that the "Welcome to Edinburgh" greeters at the airport are Slovenians.
Not surprisingly, none of his old friends are glad to see him. Quite the contrary. Spud is angry when Renton's presence disrupts carefully made suicide plans, and Simon is still furious about that stolen money. And Begbie, well Begbie doesn't need a reason to be furious, he just is.
Yet Renton and Simon, despite the impulse to betrayal they can't quite squelch, are drawn to each other because of a shared past, no matter how painful, and the fact that this is the closest relationship either of them has had.
So when Simon reveals a plan to open a spa/brothel in a lifeless pub left to him by an aunt, Renton decides to help, at least in part because he is attracted to the sardonic Bulgarian prostitute Veronika (an effective Anjela Nedyalkova) that Simon insists is his girlfriend.
Meanwhile, Spud is trying various ways to channel his addictive personality (a "Raging Spud" moment is brief but funny), while Begbie is dealing with a son who would rather go to hotel management school than join his father in a family life of crime.
Unconventional sequel though it is, "T2" does nod to certain moments of the previous film. There's a cameo for Renton's crush Diane (Kelly Macdonald), a reprise of songs like Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Relax," even a reconfiguration of Renton's celebrated "Choose Life" monologue.
But there is lots of new stuff too, including a government hearing where the gang apply for a small business loan for "an artisanal bed-and-breakfast" and a scam at a Protestant gathering that culminates in a rousing improvised chorus of "no more Catholics left."
An equal-opportunity energizer, director Boyle adds zip to everything he touches, and his familiarity with the material and the characters makes it easier for him to bring even the unlikeliest moments to full life. In the world of sequels, that counts for a lot.
MPAA rating: R, for drug use, language throughout, strong sexual content, graphic nudity and some violence.
Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes
Playing: Arclight, Hollywood; Landmark, West Los Angeles