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Highs and Lows

A needle, a junkie, a heroin habit -- welcome to Great Britain in the '90s

Trainspotting may well be the most exuberantly vital and scabrously funny movie ever made about heroin addiction. Which is just part of the reason why, in a little more than 90 minutes, it manages to be more devastatingly effective than a solid week of "Just Say No" TV spots.

And yet, director Danny Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge likely would insist that their collaboration isn't "about" heroin at all. Rather, Trainspotting is about the aimless lives, cheap thrills and dwindling options of working-class young men in post-Thatcher Great Britain. Specifically, in Edinburgh, Scotland, a place that, judging from the evidence presented here, makes inner-city Detroit look like a bountiful land of opportunity.

In this a bleak environment, Trainspotting persuasively argues, heroin is not merely alluring, it is perilously close to irresistible. "People think it's about misery and desperation and death," one character notes, with obvious contempt for those people. "But what they forget is the pleasure of it. Otherwise, we wouldn't do it. After all, we're not fucking stupid. At least, not that fucking stupid."

Renton (Ewan McGregor), the cunning narrator who offers these observations, is brutally frank about his "sincere and truthful junk habit." Heroin, he says, is fun. It feels great. "Take the best orgasm you ever had," he explains, "multiply it by a thousand and you're still nowhere near it." Trouble is -- as Drugstore Cowboy revealed several years ago with considerably less flash and hyperbole -- being a drug addict means working long and hard at begging, borrowing and stealing money to score. It's worse than a nine-to-five job: the hours are miserable, the pressure is killing and the fringe benefits are, albeit orgasmic, fleeting. In short, it's a diversion as pointless and time-consuming as the hobby -- recording the engine numbers of British railway trains -- that gives the movie its title.

All of which makes the movie sound a good deal more didactic and schematic than it is. Trainspotting doesn't say anything particularly fresh or offer any new insights as it plumbs the depths of the drug culture. (Sometimes, quite literally: the movie has a surreal sequence inside a grimy public toilet that may cause the faint of heart and the queasy of stomach to flee the theater.) But the movie makes its observations and dramatizes its concerns with an extraordinary amount of in-your-face aggressiveness and rock-the-house energy. The movie begins with Renton and a companion racing right toward the camera, chased by security guards from a department store they presumably robbed. Renton appears so pumped-up with audacity and daring -- in short, so alive -- he immediately wins you over.

By the time he sticks the hypodermic into his arm, it's too late: he's already hooked you on his toxic adrenaline.

Boyle, Hodge and producer Andrew Macdonald, the same talented triumvirate who gave us the sardonic Shallow Grave, adapted Trainspotting from a 1993 novel that has had phenomenal appeal among Generation Xers in Great Britain. (The author, Irvine Welsh, subsequently wrote two equally popular books, and now enjoys the dubious position of cult figure in England.) Reportedly, the book was a loosely constructed series of interrelated short stories about several characters, each with a distinct point of view. The filmmakers streamlined the material, tightening the focus and shaping the freeform plots into a single, conventional narrative. But the readers didn't appear to mind these changes. In fact, they and thousands of other ticket buyers flocked to Trainspotting when it was released in Britain earlier this year. So far, it is the second most financially successful British-produced movie of all time -- right behind Four Weddings and a Funeral.

Will the movie be equally successful on this side of the Atlantic? Probably not. For one thing, the thick Scottish accents will be a major turnoff for many moviegoers, even those who pride themselves on their venturesomeness. And then there is the matter of the brazenly scatological humor, not exactly the sort of thing that usually thrills either mainstream audiences or the art-house crowd.

Even so, for those who are tough enough, or curious enough, Trainspotting can be a startling and enthralling experience. Even when it's difficult to understand what the characters are saying, it's easy to be fascinated by what they are doing.

Renton is an utterly amoral and self-absorbed layabout who spends most of his time on the lookout for dope to score, money to scam, work to avoid and girls to prod. (That last sport, he learns the hard way, has its own unique risks.) He is bright enough to recognize the downside of what he's doing, particularly when a neglected baby is found dead in his favorite shooting gallery. But he's too far gone for even this to have much cautionary impact.

Renton moves in a circle that also includes Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), a bleached-blond poser who's obsessed with Sean Connery; Spud (Ewen Bremner), a bespectacled dullard who springs to life only after he takes speed before a job interview; Tommy (Kevin McKidd), a fresh-faced soccer fan who avoids drugs for a long time, though not quite long enough; and Begbie (Robert Carlyle), a scary brute who's always looking for a fight and usually finds one. One of the more pointed of the movie's ironies is that Begbie never takes heroin. Booze gets him into more than enough trouble, thank you very much.

Trainspotting doesn't avoid the tragic consequences of drug-addled and booze-enhanced behavior. One character contracts AIDS from a needle. Another must endure a brief prison sentence, while a third appears destined for an even longer stint behind bars. Even the joltingly upbeat ending has a touch of foreboding. Next month, or maybe even next week, the same guy who sounds so cocky about his clever machinations may very well be using his ill-gotten gain to support a born-again drug habit.

And yet, even the most harrowing episodes in Trainspotting crackle with a buzz not unlike a junkie's euphoria. The visual quotes are cheeky -- check out the references to Abbey Road and A Clockwork Orange -- and the deadpan gallows humor is bracing. The filmmakers are honest enough to have it both ways. Yes, they seem to be saying, life in a living hell can be enormously exciting, especially with a soundtrack that includes everything from Lou Reed and Iggy Pop to Primal Scream and Elastica. Trouble is, it's still hell. It may be an interesting place to visit. But you wouldn't want to die there.

Trainspotting.
Directed by Danny Boyle. With Ewan McGregor, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller, Kevin McKidd and Robert Carlyle.

Rated R.
95 minutes.

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