"T2" Trainspotting" is brilliant in a way that it has no business being. It's a sequel to a modern classic film by filmmaker Danny Boyle ("Slumdog Millionaire") 20 years after the fact.
What has happened to the principals in the 20 years since it came out with no small controversy and outrage at its story of affectless junkies in Edinburgh is that, along with Oscar-winner Boyle, the actors have become upstanding citizens of world film and television. Jonny Lee Miller, Robert Carlyle and Ewan McGregor have all become television fixtures--Miller as Sherlock Holmes in "Elementary," Carlyle in "Once Upon a Time" and McGregor in "Fargo." All, especially McGregor, are crucial to movies too (in McGregor's case, the second batch of "Star Wars" movies, "Moulin Rouge," "Blackhawk Down" and "A Life Less Ordinary").
The idea of a sequel to a movie about alienated youth 20 years after the fact has no business working in much of the same way as the original film. But it does, and without being the slightest bit imitative. The idea of sequels that take place after some years first hit full force with Michael Apted's astonishing series of "Seven Up" documentary films in which he made films every seven years about the same group of children. From Apted's idea, Richard Linklater, no doubt, got the idea for his hugely praised films "Boyhood" and the "Before" trilogy starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, which called for the same performers to be seen at regular intervals to tell the stories of their lives and brains over long periods. It is almost a commonplace now, in movies, to show us what time really does to us all.
You could argue, I suppose, that Boyle and writer John Hodge had no business re-convening the junkie characters of "Trainspotting" with so few fatalities in the 20-year interim. We all know a wee bit better than that about heroin and opioid addiction. In the 20-year interim on film there has been one death from AIDS and another horrible and tragic death of an infant whose junkie father was otherwise preoccupied with drugs. But we knew about them.
Two decades later, Renton (McGregor) is clean but, after marriage and children in Amsterdam, has stalled out of life entirely. Begbie (Carlyle) has been in jail the whole time but gets out by getting a fellow inmate to stab him in the stomach and escaping. Simon (Miller) is a crackhead blackmailing johns in a badger game. And Spud (Ewen) is interrupted by Renton in the end stages of a suicide attempt that would have succeeded splendidly if his old friend hadn't come back to Edinburgh from Amsterdam to give back to his mates the money he once stole from them. He figures that he owes each of his friends $4,000, their cut of $24,000 he originally made off with 20 years ago.
If that sounds as if a violent residue of anger from the betrayal and theft might well sully his Kumbaya ambitions with his buddies, that's exactly what happens--especially to psychotic Begbie who seems ready to kill under ordinary bland circumstances let alone after 20 years fantasizing revenge in a jail cell.
Forget Henry Miller's "Tropic of Cancer," or Burroughs' "Naked Lunch" or J. P. Donleavy's "The Ginger Man." This kind of tale of youthful misbehavior goes back at least to Petronious' "Satyricon." But when you're dealing with men in early middle age who have so utterly failed at life, shouldn't the new adventures ring somewhat hollow?
Well they don't. It is the point of this movie that the world at large has as little interest in these guys as it ever did now that they're men. It's a Trump and Brexit world. They're still out for sex and drugs and scams, rather than good citizenship. What they encounter can be monumentally funny. Boyle is always a bravura filmmaker no matter what he does, with a constant, gaudy editing style that uses with everything but the kitchen sink (and that too, along with an uninstalled toilet used as a weapon in a brawl in an emtpy barroom).
The shock about the original "Trainspotting" was how much better the film was than Irvine Welsh's original novel. Welsh wrote another novel about these characters but it was scarcely used at all here. Nevertheless, there are two astonishing moments of bravura writing by Hodge this time. In one punishingly funny scene, Simon and Renton steal credit cards from a pub but before the denizens allow them out the door, they have to sing a song. So they sing a song they made up as kids that has a refrain envisioning a world where "there are no more Catholics left." The bigots in the bar suddenly come to life in their dimwitted hatred and the boys get away.
In another glorious scene, McGregor updates his ""Choose Life" monologue in the original so that is again as staggeringly virtuosic a piece of writing for film as you'll see this year. McGregor spits it out with demonic rage and eloquence.
In a time of year we don't ordinarily great films, this one comes very, very close.
Three and a half stars
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller, Robert Carlyle, Ewan Bremer and Shirley Henderson
Director: Danny Boyle
Running time: 117 minutes
Rated: R for constant rough language, drug use, frontal nudity, sex and violence.
The lowdown: Twenty years later, the squalid surviving Edinburgh junkies of "Trainspotting" re-convene with schemes to get even and get rich.