Cook up and tie off—T2, the long-awaited sequel to Danny Boyle's British black comedy Trainspotting, opens this weekend. Released in 1996, Trainspotting arrived in the U.S. as domestic heroin use was peaking, and its tale of five directionless Edinburgh lads, some of them avid junkies, connected with indie filmgoers like a spike into the main line. No movie ever made me want to do the drug more, not after Boyle married it to the irresistible bomp-bomp-bomp, bomp-bomp-ba-bomp of Iggy Pop's "Lust for Life." Who could forget the image of young Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) standing alone in his room, eyes shut, smoke in hand, tipping backward in sheer pleasure as the dope washes over him? "Take the best orgasm you ever had, multiply it by a thousand, and you're still nowhere near it," he enthuses in one of his frequent voice-overs. Interviewed for a making-of video, Boyle cited this celebration of the drug experience as a virtue of Irvine Welsh's source novel: "It doesn't flinch to tell you what can happen to you, but it also tells you how extraordinary these drugs can be."
Hollywood movies were never like this. Since the 1950s, when Otto Preminger's The Man With the Golden Arm broke the studio taboo against drug stories, American films and TV shows had portrayed heroin as a death sentence, stressing the need and desperation of addiction. The heightened realism of the New Hollywood brought a wave of serious dramas involving heroin—The Panic in Needle Park (1971), The French Connection (1971), Lady Sings the Blues (1972), Lenny (1974)—that portrayed junkies as pathetic if not disgusting. Even the relatively recent spate of films accompanying the Gen-X heroin boom—Drugstore Cowboy (1989), Rush (1991), The Basketball Diaries (1995)—had proven to be traditional cautionary tales. But Trainspotting, which American critics compared endlessly to A Hard Day's Night, made heroin fun.
A day in the life of the Beatles was generally more productive than a day in the life of most junkies (or at least started earlier), but the Hard Day's Night comparison holds true. Trainspotting focuses on four mates—Mark, the athletic Tommy (Kevin McKidd), the geeky Spud (Ewen Bremner), and the cynical pop-culture critic Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller)—sharing crazy comic adventures as they drink, do drugs, play soccer, chase birds, and rock out. Mark, Spud, and Sick Boy are all hooked on H, though Tommy won't go near it, nor will Francis Begbie (Robert Carlyle), the violent, two-bit hood who carouses with them occasionally. Mark and Sick Boy make intermittent attempts to clean up, inspired in no small part by the horrifying day when Sick Boy's infant daughter succumbs to crib death while mom, dad, and their drug buddies lie smacked out in the next room. By the end of the movie Tommy has taken up heroin and contracted HIV from a dirty needle. Trainspotting climaxes with a dope sale, orchestrated by Begbie, that nets him, Mark, Spud, and Sick Boy the handsome sum of £16,000, but Mark betrays his mates, slipping away with the cash to start a new life in Amsterdam.
If you want to know the theme of T2, look no further than the scene in Trainspotting when Sick Boy uses the dwindling creative fortunes of Sean Connery to explain to Mark his "unifying theory of life." Connery may be good in The Name of the Rose, Sick Boy concedes, but his post-Bond decline is irreversible. "At one point you've got it," he says. "Then you lose it, and it's gone forever. All walks of life." Mark asks for examples, and Sick Boy rattles them off: Georgie Best, David Bowie, Lou Reed, David Niven, Malcolm McLaren, Elvis Presley. Mark is incredulous: "So we all get old, and we can't hack it anymore? That's your theory?" It may not pass muster as a unifying theory of life, but it works just fine for a movie sequel. With T2, original screenwriter John Hodge reunites the surviving characters 20 years later, when their hell-raising has been curtailed by middle age and a growing sense of mortality. They've all lost it; the only question is whether it really might be gone forever.
Bad sequels try to re-create the original movie; good ones explore its narrative consequences. That's certainly the case with T2 when Mark returns to Edinburgh to visit his widowed father, atone for missing his mother's death and burial, and face the music with his former friends and accomplices. Time hasn't been kind to the old crew: Spud is unemployed and still mired in heroin addiction, and Sick Boy divides his time between running his late aunt's desolate pub and blackmailing errant husbands with the help of his Bulgarian prostitute girlfriend, Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova). Begbie has spent the last 20 years incarcerated, but manages to escape, and once he learns that Mark has come back to town, he vows revenge. But Mark hasn't done much better than the others: as he confesses to Sick Boy, his wife back in Amsterdam has left him, his business partners have elbowed him out of their company, and doctors have just inserted a metal stent into his left coronary artery. "I'm 46 years old," he tells Sick Boy, "and I'm fucked!"
These are serious concerns, but Boyle and Hodge haven't lost their sense of humor about the characters or even the original film. Trainspotting opens with a close-up of Mark's sneakered feet hitting the pavement; he's being chased down the sidewalk after a robbery, and after rolling over the hood of the car that's emerged from an alley, he pulls back to laugh diabolically at the driver. For the opening shot of T2, Mark's sneakered feet hit an exercise treadmill at a health club, and after suffering a coronary event, he collapses and rolls off onto the floor. These rhyming gags pop up all through the sequel. One of the funniest vignettes in Trainspotting showed Mark picking up a pretty young thing named Diane (Kelly Macdonald in her screen debut) and taking her back to her place for a shag; the next morning he comes downstairs to find Diane in a school blazer and her parents at the breakfast table. When Diane turns up again in T2, she's a high-priced attorney to whom Mark and Veronika turn when Sick Boy gets busted. As they're leaving Diane's office, she pulls Mark aside for a word of advice about his companion: "She's too young for you."
These in-jokes fit right in with the characters' endless retrospection. "Where I come from, the past is something to forget, but it's all you talk about," Veronika tells Mark and Sick Boy. Ignoring her, they play foosball and listen to the Clash. Boyle inserts mock home-movie footage that shows the five mates as schoolboy chums, hanging out at the pub with their parents; at one point it's backed by a piano rendition of Lou Reed's "Perfect Day," a key song from Trainspotting. But nostalgia has a way of turning into disappointment at a moment's notice. At one point in T2, Sick Boy fondly reminisces with Mark about the day they first shot heroin, then interrupts himself to exclaim, "Will you stop lookin' at your fuckin' watch!" And when Mark treats Veronika to a reprise of his "Choose Life" rap from Trainspotting, a rebellious inventory of everything shitty that modern life has to offer, it turns into a rant about the coldness and cruelty of the Twitter age, and his own coldness and cruelty in denying his sick mother the reunion she craved.
T2 wouldn't be complete without Mark paying a visit to his old friend smack, though Boyle and Hodge no longer portray the drug as a force for jubilation. Mark takes Spud and Sick Boy out to a rural train crossing to memorialize their old friend Tommy, but before long Sick Boy is berating Mark for having introduced Tommy to heroin and Mark is dredging up Sick Boy's culpability in the death of his daughter. Immediately afterward they're sitting in a room together, rushing hard after shooting up (in a surreal touch, the walls pulse with upside-down video of African wildlife). This notion of heroin as self-medication for emotional pain fits right into the old dope-movie paradigm, which always made the user an object of pity.
Oddly, Boyle and Hodge never capitalize on the real-life phenomenon of heroin having made a giant comeback. Last year the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported that use of the drug, after dropping in the new millennium, had reached its highest point since 1996, the year Trainspotting was released. Here in the U.S., heroin abuse has skyrocketed in the past decade, particularly in the midwest and primarily because of the opioid crisis, as patients addicted to prescription painkillers turn to street drugs. T2 takes a more ambiguous stance toward heroin than its predecessor did, which stands to reason—when you're getting coronary surgery, you should probably think about dialing it down. For the final shot of T2, Boyle places Mark back inside his old childhood bedroom—where he sweated out a heroin withdrawal in Trainspotting—and turns the room, with its train-engine wallpaper, into an endless, moving tunnel that culminates in a distant point of light. This surreal image speaks to the issue of life rolling onward but also to the force of addiction: in both cases you have to ride the train to the end of the line. v