Danny Boyle revives heroin schtick

T2 Trainspotting
Directed by Danny Boyle
Written by John Hodge, based on Irvine Welsh’s novels
118 minutes, rated R 18+
4 stars

At the end of Trainspotting in 1996, Ewan McGregor had a famous monologue in which he swore he was cleaning up and moving on, choosing life over heroin, with all the boredom that entailed: ‘game shows, junk food, children, walks in the park, 9 to 5, good at golf, washing the car, choice of sweaters, family Christmas, indexed pension, tax exemption, clearing the gutters, getting by, looking ahead, the day you die…’

Mark Renton (McGregor) does a new version of that in T2 Trainspotting where he rails about Facebook and Twitter and ‘slut-shaming’ and ‘revenge porn’ and ‘an unknown dose of an unknown drug made in somebody’s kitchen…’ The original screenwriter John Hodge grooves again off Irvine Welsh’s iconoclastic prose but with a certain nostalgia – as if the heroin-filled days of the original film were somehow more innocent, purer – which would be laughable if you stopped to think about it but the film allows no time to do that. I was too busy laughing and gasping at the return of four of Edinburgh’s biggest losers, and the fact that Danny Boyle can still summon this much energy and freedom in his direction, twenty years on. And how come these characters are all still alive?

Well, the psychopathic Begbie (Robert Carlyle) never took heroin and he’s doing 25 years for murder. Simon aka Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) only does cocaine now, between bouts of blackmailing and running the worst pub in Scotland, down at the Leith docks. Only poor harmless Spud (Ewen Bremner) is still doing ‘skag’ despite numerous attempts to kick for the sake of his estranged wife Gail (Shirley Henderson) and their child.

In the first film, Renton stole the money they made on a drug deal in London and took off. He returns now from Amsterdam to pay some debts. At the pub in Leith, Sick Boy gives him a proper thrashing with pool cue. The fight is both brutal and funny, and that description fits the whole movie. When Renton finds Spud, he’s in the throes of killing himself (again), with a plastic bag over his head. Begbie escapes by getting another inmate to stab him with a knitting needle. Each scene made me wince and guffaw.

The first film was a phenomenon. Danny Boyle and John Hodge had already attracted attention with Shallow Grave but Trainspotting was something else – unrepentantly harsh and filthy, jacked on music as much as heroin, highly energised in performance and cutting. There was a degree of arrogance about it – as in the Choose Life monologue – and the depiction of heroin use as fun was unprecedented. A dead baby and the death of one of the characters from AIDS kept that in perspective.

Boyle tried to do a sequel ten years ago, using Irvine Welsh’s sequel book Porno. That didn’t happen, partly because of bad blood between Boyle and McGregor (to do with the casting of The Beach, in which Doyle replaced McGregor at the last minute with Leonardo DiCaprio).

Hodge’s new script is mostly original material. It comes with high expectations, on which it delivers. The outlook is just as unsentimental but more rueful. The characters have grown up only enough to have regrets. Boyle cuts in bits of the old movie to serve as memories, then repeats some of the famous bits in a different key, a sort of visual rhyming. In beautiful Princes St, Spud has a flashback to the running scene where Ewan McGregor was knocked over by a car, then came up smiling demonically. Now we see Renton ride the top of a car careening out of a car park to escape the murderous Begbie – and again, the same smile.

Boyle shows off his story-telling tools as well. In one scene he projects film of Georgie Best on the outside of a moving car as Renton, Simon and his Bulgarian prostitute girlfriend (Anjela Nedyalkova) discuss Best inside the car.

The film offers little hope that life in Edinburgh has improved. The settings offer contrast instead – urban wastelands next to breathtaking views from Arthur’s Seat, the huge bluff overlooking the city. Maybe there is hope somewhere for some people – just not for this shower*

* shower of shit – or shite – disappearing British and Australian slang, probably of military origin, for unfortunate person.