Obviously the world didn't "need" a sequel to 1996's Trainspotting, but the world has nevertheless received a sequel to Trainspotting, with the acutely & I am sure deliberately terrible title T2 Trainspotting. And you know what? It's actually pretty doggone good, visibly rejuvenating director Danny Boyle and star Ewan McGregor, neither of whom has done anything this substantial and effective in a whole lot of years, and besides that reuniting one of the most promising actor-director teams of the 1990s, who split following alleged bad feelings over McGregor being passed over for the lead role in Boyle's version of The Beach.*

Reunification is as much an on-screen theme of T2 as it is off-screen. Taking place 20 years after the act of betrayal that ends Trainspotting, as we are reminded multiple times, the film trains its generous attention on what happens to that film's core quartet of characters when Mark Renton (McGregor discovers to his unsurprised dismay that he's going to die eventually, and when he does, he'll have a whole lot of wasted life to answer for. So back he goes to the site of all his greatest failures, which the willful obfuscation of nostalgia has re-defined as successes, and attempts to reconnect to the men who, by virtue of a shared interest in heroin, counted as his "friends" back in the '90s: Simon "Sick Boy" Williamson (Jonny Lee Miller), who runs a seedy blackmail racket with his Bulgarian business partner/lover/honey trap Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova) and has swapped smack for cocaine, and "Spud" Murphy (Ewen Bremner, giving a hauntingly sad and gentle performance, the film's best), who remains a heroin addict, and whose miserably shitty behavior has recently cost him his girlfriend, Gail (Shirley Henderson), and their son, Fergus (Kyle Fitzpatrick). And through a coincidence that, I will confess, I never stopped thinking of as hugely contrived, Renton's return to Scotland after two decades in self-imposed exile in Amsterdam happens to coincide exactly with the prison break of Francis Begbie (Robert Carlyle), who has been denied his latest attempt at parole.

It's a curious relationship T2 shares with Trainspotting. On the one hand, if you don't know who all those people are, T2 won't bother telling you, though I'm sure you could pick some of it up. On the other hand, it's such a different thing than the first film, with entirely self-contained concerns. I somewhat get the feeling that it's not so much that Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge (freely adapting Irvine Welsh's sequel novel Porno) really wanted to make a sequel, as that they wanted to make a film about mid-life crises, and the Trainspotting cast had ready-made backstories that T2 could tap into without having to establish them for the audience. Setting aside the extreme difference in quality, the film this most reminds me of is Before Sunset: that film is an exquisite story of adults warily dancing around an ex-lover of particular emotional significance, but it also gains so much of its potency from the viewer's knowledge of what happened in Before Sunrise. So it is here: I think a blind viewer would be able to figure out exactly what T2 is doing, they just wouldn't have a reason to care about any of these people.

All of which is to say that T2 does exactly the thing that I wish all sequels did; it tells its own story, drawing from the original but not trying to redefine it or re-create it (for the most part. In fact, the worst things in T2 are generally the things that most directly feel like fan service, though there's less of this than I, at least, expected to find). It's a different story told in a different idiom, by a very writer and director who have done 20 years worth of growing older, and I'd be inclined to say that Hodge has had the better of those two decades than Boyle; while, stylistically, this blows away anything the director has made since at least Slumdog Millionaire, it still shows the marks of the inflexible, overly-processed aesthetic that he's been locked into ever since that film came out in 2008. Trainspotting had the manic desperation of youth; T2 has the calculated pseudo-spontaneity of an adult trying to cautiously predetermine everything he does before doing it. Which ties into the film's themes so neatly that I almost want to give Boyle credit for it, but I can't persuade myself that it was intentional.

The plot - and there's not much of it, though significantly more than in the very episodic original - largely circles around Renton, Simon, and Veronika attempting to convert the old pub Simon has inherited into a brothel, while Spud clambers out of the bleak, depressive hole he's been in, funneling his pain into writing the story of his and his friends' lives way back when. Begbie attempts to worm his way back into his family's life, and later strikes out for revenge against Renton and Simon for their roles in sending him to prison. And I'll reiterate, and then be done with it, the Begbie material just doesn't work for me. It's shot through with a terrific vein of black comedy in a film that generally isn't designed to have much at all of a sense of humor, but it feels tacked on, like you couldn't do a proper sequel without that ol' psychopath Begbie. Not even the one scene with Kelly Macdonald's Diane is so forced; at least that has some thematic resonance, as we see one person from those days of '96 who was able to survive and thrive and leave the old days behind without any of the melancholic fumbling of the leads.

Because that's actually the real point of the thing: it's an exercise in nostalgia and a critique of nostalgia, a story of middle-aged misery that understands the tendency to lionise one's youthful exuberance, while also having the clarity to ask, "are you fucking kidding? Everything was horrible then, and so were you." Visually, before Boyle starts adding in expressive bouts of style (which mostly happens after the midway point, as Renton and Simon shift into a more comfortable, less antagonistic relationship), the film is dedicated to portraying Edinburgh as a sleek, shiny, and soulless 21st Century city - an early obvious joke, but a tremendously well-executed one, finds McGregor looking around an airport terminal with a confused, drained look as he re-enters the city for the first time in twenty years, with a giant out-of-focus Starbucks sign hanging behind him like an unfriendly ghost. It's a very distinctly digital, scrubbed image that's especially jarring next to the dirty, colorful, hellaciously rough and grainy original, and it gives us an immediate cue to note that the film will be leaning heavily on the message that you can't go home again.

Which is of course not remotely original, but in T2, it's given a nice work-out by Renton's dogged attempts to force the issue. Between the footage taken from Trainspotting and newly-shot home movies of the characters' time together as children, T2 is drunk on memories of a bygone past, and the natural human tendency to romanticise that past as a time when things were better. Renton, at least, clearly looks upon 1996 as the last time he was an idealistic punk, and the return to Edinburgh causes him to resent his middle-aged self as a betrayer of those ideals (bringing back the "Choose..." monologue is an obvious sop to fans, but McGregor's repulsed reaction to what he's hearing himself say is so good that it manages to thoroughly redeem the thing). But he forgets that he was a miserable, self-deluding heroin addict in 1996, and T2 seems to be as much about the way that nostalgia is a tar pit that will suck you in and kill you as it is an indulgence in the intoxication of nostalgia. Which is kind of exactly how Trainspotting treated heroin, when you get right down to it.

And that, maybe, is the best thing about T2: showing how the characters have changed and grown, while living all of their core problems firmly intact, just exactly the way it happens in life. The film has plenty of problems and inconsistencies, and I am certainly not interested in pretending that, despite some excellent compositions grounding the characters in the physicality of the locations, that it has anything resembling the aesthetic urgency of the original film. It's still late Danny Boyle, and he's just not the cinematic adventurer he once was. But if the world genuinely required another story about self-doubting middle-aged man-boys (and in fairness, it doesn't), this handles that material awfully damn well, and manages to deepen a great predecessor without feeling particularly exploitative about it at all.

*"How dare you not cast me in your critically-mauled box office flop" seems like a weird slight to base a 15-year feud on, but hey, actors.