There can be something particularly grating about listening to middle-age men pining for the glory days of youth, and Danny Boyle has made a film about that very phenomenon. I’m pleased to say, however, that the resultant picture is not as tedious as I had feared — even if it’s never as transcendent as it could have been.
Those similarly afraid that the long-awaited (in some corners, dreaded) sequel to Boyle’s 1996 breakout picture Trainspotting would fail to live up to the frenetic verve of the original film may well find their concerns justified, but that precise sense of failure is the entire point of T2. Boyle’s trip down memory lane is characterized less by nostalgia than regret, and he manages to toe the tonal line between wistful and maudlin with a mastery that belies the 20 years of experience he’s gained since he first adapted Irvine Welsh’s seminal work of pseudo-gothic junkie fiction.
In a sense, the first Trainspotting film was a monster movie — and so too is T2, only this time the monster isn’t heroin-fueled nihilism, but malign longevity. The narrative revisits Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor), now living clean and firmly ensconced in middle age and the middle class, until a coronary incident on a treadmill leads him to question the purpose of the remaining 30 years of life his doctors have promised him. This existential crisis prompts a return to Edinburgh and the friends he burned in the climactic heroin deal that punctuated this story’s predecessor. Ewen Bremner, Johnny Lee Miller and Robert Carlyle reprise their roles as Spud, Sick Boy (now Simon) and Begbie, respectively — and the ensemble is thoroughly unashamed in their display of aging gracelessly. McGregor returns to the role that made him a star, and Carlyle returns to the career-defining turn that made him nearly uncastable as anything other than a bloviating psychopath, but their takes on Renton and Begbie are almost unrecognizable when contrasted with computer-inserted flashbacks from the previous film.
As Renton and the gang fall back into old patterns, so too does Boyle. Dutch angles, forced-perspective trick shots and a throbbing pop music score dominate the proceedings, but like the story’s protagonists, what once seemed like innovative techniques are now a bit long in the tooth. Much of the film is directorially focused on examining the effect 20 years of gentrification has had on Edinburgh, the city’s hard-earned veneer of grime having been largely effaced by tourism, immigration and economic progress that leaves the film’s central characters as little more than anachronistic landmarks resisting change in a world that has passed them by. Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge double down on the dark comedy that distinguished the original Trainspotting, their current film replete with carefully choreographed cameos (Kelly Macdonald and author Welsh reprise their roles from the first film for one scene each) punctuated by visual callbacks and black-hearted sight gags that evoke the prior film without digressing into redundancy.
Ever the consummate stylist, Boyle’s visual sensibilities have developed a range that was absent from his early work, and while not all of the aesthetic risks he takes in T2 work, it’s an undeniably interesting film to look at. The seismic shift in cinematic technology that the intervening years have witnessed affords Boyle directorial options that were entirely unavailable in 1996 and wouldn’t have been remotely affordable had they existed. In many ways, T2 functions aesthetically as a self-reflexive meditation on its own narrative, the gutter-punk inventiveness of the first film dulled by two decades of success and self-indulgence — the ideas aren’t necessarily new, but the budget certainly is.
There’s something comforting about revisiting a classic, and Boyle plays to his audience’s entrenched affinity for Trainspotting’s well-loved characters and storylines — but he’s after something more here. T2 recognizes the indelible cultural mark left by its predecessor but raises the question of excessive attachment to the past. In returning to both the narrative and stylistic cues that made him a household name, Boyle is offering a meta-commentary on the veneration of sacred cows — and while his film refuses to draw even oblique conclusions, the implications are clear: The good old days weren’t always that good, and growth requires an acceptance of that fact. Rated R for drug use, language throughout, strong sexual content, graphic nudity and some violence. Now Playing at Fine Arts Theatre.