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With 'T2: Trainspotting,' Director Danny Boyle Proves You can Go Home Again

Mar 17, 2017
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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. It's been a little more than 20 years since the release of "Trainspotting," Danny Boyle's black comedy adaptation of Irvine Welsh's novel about a band of thieving 20-something Scottish junkies. Now Boyle and writer John Hodge have loosely adapted another Welsh novel featuring the same characters and actors. Film critic David Edelstein has this review of "T2 Trainspotting."

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Danny Boyle is the world's most dazzling shallow director, and his sparkle hasn't dimmed in the sequel to his 1996 breakthrough, "Trainspotting." The new film is called "T2 Trainspotting," not to be confused with T2, the oft-used nickname for "Terminator 2." This one is tremendous fun. It doesn't have the kick of its predecessor, but it's surprisingly buoyant given the pervasiveness of addiction and suicidal impulses and despair. Boyle proves you can go home again. In fact, that's just what his protagonist does.

When we last saw Ewan McGregor's Mark Renton, he was fleeing Edinburgh with 16,000 pounds of his criminal mate's money. Twenty years later, he's an accountant in Amsterdam. But he has no heart for staying on the treadmill. The movie demonstrates this by showing him having a heart attack on a treadmill. So now he's in his mid-40s, exhausted, divorced, ready to face his past. Before he ran from Scotland, he left 4,000 pounds behind for his hangdog junkie pal Spud, played by Ewan Bremner. But he left nothing for his supposed best friend Simon, commonly known as Sick Boy, played by Jonny Lee Miller, now a cokehead and professional blackmailer who dreams of opening his own bordello with his 20-ish Bulgarian girlfriend. Simon is furious at Mark, but it's nothing compared to the other fellow Mark double-crossed.

Remember Begbie, played by Robert Carlyle? It's hard to forget his wiry frame and shocked open eyes and hair-trigger rage. Twenty years in prison haven't softened his edges or his lust for revenge. Meanwhile, Bremner's Spud is still on the scag. That's heroin. But Mark tries to help him kick by taking him on a run in the hills above that gorgeous medieval city.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "T2 TRAINSPOTTING")

EWAN BREMNER: (As Spud) Can't feel again, Mark. You know, I need to detox the system.

EWAN MCGREGOR: (As Mark Renton) Spud detox the system. What does that even mean? It doesn't mean anything. It's not getting it out of your body that's the problem. It's getting it out of your mind. You are an addict.

BREMNER: (As Spud) You think I haven't heard that 100,000 times, Mark? You got 12 more steps for me, comrade?

MCGREGOR: (As Mark Renton) So be addicted. Be addicted to something else.

BREMNER: (As Spud) Like running until I feel sick?

MCGREGOR: (As Mark Renton) Yes, or something else. You've got to channel it. You've got to control it. People try all sorts. Some people do boxing.

BREMNER: (As Spud) Boxing?

MCGREGOR: (As Mark Renton) Well, it's just an example. I don't mean you should...

BREMNER: (As Spud) So what did you channel into?

MCGREGOR: (As Mark Renton) Getting away.

EDELSTEIN: The idea of Spud boxing is a hoot because he's such a puny, skeletal thing. And Danny Boyle points up the silliness by showing him walk into a gym and then fantasize he's bounding into the ring in slow motion with a title reading, raging Spud. Boy, does Boyle want to prove he's lost none of his youthful giddiness. Although "T2 Trainspotting" has a melancholy streak, a nostalgia for a time of crazy energy and resiliency, there's no loss of energy in the filmmaking. As Mark and Simon and Spud try to raise money to turn Simon's rundown, disgusting pub into a classy brothel, the camera is all over the place, swooping down and tilting up, the pacing irresistibly syncopated. Well, I did resist a little, as I resisted "Trainspotting" in the mid-'90s. It loomed so large. Not as large as "Pulp Fiction," but close.

No one before Boyle had combined such buoyant high jinks with so bleak and grotty a milieu. The young cast was magnetic, the storytelling playful, the tone closer to "American Pie" than "Drugstore Cowboy." Sure, there were needles going into veins, and in one horrifying scene a baby who died from her junkie parents' neglect. But most audiences didn't leave saying, how depressing. They said, what a rush. I felt the disconnection between the movie's tone and content in my blood. No matter the story, Boyle wants his movies to be uppers, not downers.

You could, of course, argue that the mix of whimsy and despair in both "Trainspotting" films fits the setting - Scotland, that magical land of Black Hills and malt whiskey and high suicide rates. And I have no ambivalence about the actors. Ewan McGregor is as grounded and charismatic as ever, and Robert Carlyle is a marvel. Carlyle has you laughing at Begbie's craziness right up to the point when a chill runs up your spine and you realize that even though this is a comedy, this guy's capable of anything. He's so scary that the T2 in the title just might be a nod to the Terminator.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. Coming up, I review the new Julie Andrews children's TV series on Netflix, "Julie's Greenroom." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.