“T2 Trainspotting” review: Not quite a return to form, but a welcome mutation

One of the most appealing things about 1996’s “Trainspotting” was its smack-you-in-the-face vigor. In nearly every scene, and certainly in the film’s explosive introduction, director Danny Boyle and his attractive cast offered a sense that a strong (occasionally overworked) heart was pumping blood to all the film’s vital organs.

The same kinetic camera work, hip soundtrack and alternately energized and melancholy editing supplies a ruddy character to the sequel, “T2 Trainspotting,” which revisits our heroin addicts in hardscrabble Edinburgh, and is again adapted from author Irvine Welsh’s work (in this case, the 2002 novel “Porno”).

“T2” cannot help but live in the shadow of that same vigor, now recast as a sort of middle-aged exhaustion. But improbably, the film vaults over most pitfalls of long-threatened sequels while evolving the delicately crafted world in the original. It’s a more sober, mature film, but no less entertaining or provocative.

We’re reintroduced to agreeable ex-junkie Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) as he jogs on a treadmill in a title sequence that intersperses grainy images of him playing soccer with his boyhood mates. The fact that he collapses at the end of the sequence hints at a line from later in the film: “Be addicted — to something else.”

Renton, now a more buttoned-down type, has come back from Amsterdam after absconding with the ill-begotten money of the first film. The gangly, put-upon comic relief Daniel “Spud” Murphy (Ewen Bremner) is still a junkie, and we see him scraping bottom in a way that competes in visceral disgusting-ness with the original’s iconic “Worst Toilet in Scotland” sequence. (His character arc turns out to be one of the most satisfying.)

Simon “Sick Boy” Williamson (Jonny Lee Miller) is a cokehead who has taken up with the young, pretty Bulgarian prostitute Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova). He pours pints for retirees at his aunt’s dilapidated pub while scheming for longer, slightly more legit cons. The violently unpredictable Franco “Francis” Begbie (Robert Carlyle, in fine and terrifying form) has escaped from prison and is out for revenge on Renton for swiping his drug money. The character provides the film’s most delicious tension, and Carlyle’s performance deserves any award it’s likely to get.

Boyle takes his time reuniting them, letting them stray into each other’s orbits instead of smashing them together — except when narratively appropriate. Along with screenwriter John Hodge, Boyle is self-conscious about “getting the gang back together” sequences — fitting of the original, even down to a squirm-inducing fight that ensues when Renton strolls into Simon’s bar.

“T2” is an impressive exercise in wrangling and filtering. The variety of settings and situations can feel disorienting, especially with Boyle’s clever (yet unobtrusive) special effects that wordlessly communicate the ephemeral nature of modern interaction. As with the original, however, it unfolds in ways that are both refreshingly carnal (including full frontal male nudity, rarely seen in even R-rated American films) and thoughtful as a matter of course, each line and lingering shot imbued with a showy thematic weight.

The film is about addiction in more ways than one. During masterful scenes in which Simon and Renton attempt to rob a unionist pub in Glasgow, or quietly pull a more high-minded heist while applying for a loan, we’re presented with examples of how quick we are to trust people whose views seemingly match our own — and how easily that can be turned against us with cynical emotional triggers.

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Despite the odd commentary on whipping people into a frenzy, however, the film doesn’t do much with drug addiction. It chiefly examines what director Boyle has called “deeply disappointing masculinity.” From Begbie’s failing virility to awkward male bonding (with soccer as a central metaphor) and failed fatherhood, “T2” is a bruising meditation on the emptiness of defensive men. That it’s a boy’s club is a foregone conclusion, but stronger female characters than the young, wide-eyed Veronika, or a tantalizingly brief scene with original cast member Kelly Macdonald, would have been appreciated.

Dialogue alternates between sharp and dazzling, laconic and spare. Owing to its anxiety about a world that has moved on, everything feels sanded down, sleek and co-opted in some way. Only when we get into the grittier third act does the decay beneath everything start to leak into the film’s saturated color palette.

As befits its director and subject matter, “T2” is only occasionally obvious about the fact that it’s the sequel to an influential film from another decade. It mostly prefers to show us new angles on familiar characters and places. Fans of the original are well served in that sense, since youthful indiscretion is more than just a concept in “T2.” We’re better off now, even as we’ve lost something, it seems to say of aging. Regardless, time moves us all.

“T2 Trainspotting”

* * * stars
Dark comedy
Rated R
117 minutes

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