The opening minutes of Danny Boyle's Trainspotting stand as a defining pop salvo in the movies, akin to The Beatles dashing away from screaming fans in A Hard Day's Night or Rosie Perez shadow-boxing her way through Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" in the opening credits of Do the Right Thing.
To the propulsive thump of Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life," we're introduced to motley quintet of young Scottish heroin junkies, as two of them, Renton (Ewan McGregor) and Spud (Ewen Bremner), evade the police on foot. In voiceover narration, Renton riffs sarcastically on "Choose Life" sloganeering, mocking the conformist expectations of family and big-screen televisions and "fixed interest mortgage repayments." He rejects those expectations, and for what reasons? "Who needs reasons when you've got heroin?"
A full 20 years after Trainspotting, Boyle and his cast return to the scuzzy Edinburgh environs so memorably defined by novelist Irvine Welsh, all older but not necessarily wiser. Yet the clumsily titled T2 Trainspotting offers an odd set of expectations that's not unlike the Bond films that Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) mimics in his Sean Connery voice. Instead of "Bond... James Bond" or "shaken, not stirred," we're left to wonder when the "Lust for Life" music cue will kick in or which sacred cows will be slaughtered in Renton's latest "Choose Life" monologue. It is a studio sequel, in other words, and thus harder to separate moments of authentic feeling from the obligations of fan service.
Shenanigans help. The important carry-over from one Trainspotting to the other are the episodic bits of chaos and rabble-rousing that fill in days that are otherwise empty and meaningless. While Boyle, Welsh, and the screenwriter, John Hodges, note the profound changes that have reshaped the dynamic between these five characters, T2 Trainspotting is rife with man-child misadventures, perpetually buzzing with comic energy. These men may be decades into their go-nowhere lives, but they still know how to pass the time with room-clearing bar fights and petty criminality.
As for the story itself, it's a not-so-charming shambles, exposing the thin rationale for bringing these character back together in the first place. Twenty years after fleeing from his friends with the money from a heroin deal, Renton returns to Edinburgh a broken man, hollowed out by a dead-end career working in stock management software in Amsterdam. He gets less than a hero's welcome: Spud still struggles with addiction, the vengeful Begbie (Robert Carlyle), and Sick Boy, his former best friend, has switched from heroin to a raging cocaine habit, funded by a lucrative sideline in prostitution and blackmail. After a short visit becomes an open-ended one, Renton involves himself in Sick Boy's hare-brained scheme to convert a dingy pub into a brothel, with his Bulgarian girlfriend (Anjela Nedyalkova) installed as the house madam.
Aside from an amusing scene where the men try to secure public financing for their sordid little venture, the brothel subplot is a half-hearted attempt to add structure to a film that's more comfortable with the spontaneous and anecdotal. T2 Trainspotting works best as a variation on the themes of middle age and nostalgia that Edgar Wright slipped into The World's End, his sci-fi thriller about another group of estranged buddies reuniting in a hometown that's no longer the same. The sad truth of Renton and company is that they never had the power to change the world around them or the willingness to buy into societal expectations. That's fine for the young and the reckless, but 20 years of mucking around is exhausting and pitiful, like being a grizzled old townie at a punk show.
The main difference between Trainspotting and T2 Trainspotting is that the original film, for all its unexpected and delightful little detours, is a secretly rigorous portrait of addiction and misspent youth. The sequel doesn't have the same discipline or the same finger-on-the-pulse insight into the narrow set of choices facing Britain's poor and disenfranchised. It's a fitfully joyous reunion, held aloft by the performances and the little bursts of energy pumped onto the soundtrack and a few inspired setpieces. (Renton and Sick Boy stealing ATM cards from a party of a Protestant nationalists is particularly brilliant.) But it never comes up with a coherent answer for why it exists, other than to indulge in the same nostalgia that its characters find so toxic. The filmmakers should know, better than most, the folly of reliving past glories.