ON THE FAST TRACK

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Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a f----ing big television...Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows...Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pishing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, f----ed-up brats that you've spawned to replace yourselves...But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life. I chose somethin' else. And the reasons? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you've got heroin?

By his own admission, Mark Renton, the enunciator of this caustic credo, is "a bad person." Heroin addict and layabout in the lower depths of Edinburgh, Renton steals from stores, locked cars, old-age pensioners' homes, his own mother's purse--all to support his "sincere and truthful junk habit." He blithely betrays his friends; his schemes help send two mates to jail and another into an early grave. When a baby in his shooting gallery suddenly dies, Renton's only impulse is to shoot up. He also smokes, talks dirty and blasts a dog's butt with BB-gun pellets.

But a wee bit of mother wit covers a multitude of crimes; a boyish charm can sell anything; vitality overwhelms prim moral compunctions. All three apply to Trainspotting, the Scottish comedy-horror show made for a Scots-thrifty $2.5 million. The wit is in the film's dialogue; it exhilarates even as it horrifies. The charm pours from Ewan McGregor's star-making turn as Renton. And the verve--that's director Danny Boyle's triumph.

From the first image--Renton jumps over the camera and hurtles down the street as store detectives chase after him, Iggy Pop's Lust for Life hammers the sound track, and Renton delivers his "Choose life" speech--the film is a nonstop visual and aural assault. Slo-mo, fast-mo, a hallucinogenic editing pace and the thick music of Scottish accents mean that you'll have to cram for Trainspotting. Attention must be paid, and will be rewarded with the scabrous savor of the movie's lightning intelligence. The subject is heroin, but the style is speed. This film is an upper--a jolt of pure movie energy.

In Britain Trainspotting has been an improbable multimedia smash. Irvine Welsh's novel, published in 1993, is the Brit-lit phenomenon of the decade. Told in what Welsh calls "a mixture of phonetics and street language" and sold in music stores to the postliterate generation, it spawned T shirts, posters and a stage adaptation that has been produced in Edinburgh, London and San Francisco. The film, with its attendant top-of-the-pops CD and published screenplay, quickly became Britain's second-biggest-ever homemade box-office winner (after Four Weddings and a Funeral, to which it acts as a bitter antidote, a strychnine chaser). The consensus out-of-competition hit at this year's Cannes Film Festival, Trainspotting invades U.S. theaters next week.

"I don't think it'll do any business there," Danny Boyle, Trainspotting's director, predicted a few months ago. Could be. Yet it could also achieve the cult-hit status of a certain 1964 movie, which was also about four British lads with heavy Northern accents and anti-Establishment cheek and which also began with the boys eluding their pursuers. Maybe Renton and his friends Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), Spud (Ewen Bremner) and Tommy (Kevin McKidd) aren't exactly John, Paul, George and Ringo, but you don't need Boyle's quoting the album-cover poses from Help! and Abbey Road in Trainspotting to see it as A Hard Day's Night for the wasted '90s. It may even lure American viewers into learning the rough poetry of street Scottish--"radge" and "gadge" and "swedge" and "shite"--as they once did the Liverpudlian "gear fab."

They will also have to learn what that darned title means. "Trainspotting," Welsh explains, "is the compulsive collecting of locomotive engine numbers from the British railway system. But you can't do anything with the numbers once you've collected them." Says John Hodge, who culled a brilliant screenplay from Welsh's anecdotal novel: "It's a nice metaphor for doing something that gives your life a bit of structure but is ultimately pointless." So is the intravenous injection of hard drugs--a palpable pleasure that wastes time and, often, life.

It's the assertion of an addict's pleasure that--along with the raw language, the sex with a 15-year-old and the comic fascination with fecal matter--could make Trainspotting a subject of controversy. Renton, Sick Boy and Spud do their drugs in the flat of a dealer they call Mother Superior, "on account of the length of his habit." They swear off the stuff, as Renton does three times in the film, only to fall back. They are a scuzzy lot and a trial for their straight friend Tommy. But the worst of the bunch is Begbie (Robert Carlyle), an alcoholic sadist. "Begbie didn't do drugs," Renton says. "He just did people. That's what he got off on: his own sensory addiction."

Trainspotting dares to ask: Why take drugs? And answers: not just to kill yourself, but because, for the moment, it's wonderful. The film doesn't quite get inside the thrill and thrall of junkiedom; it displays people acting stuporously, oblivious to their friends or children. Neither does it wag the moralist's finger at addicts; the audience must make up its own mind about them. "Both the book and the film offer more rounded characters than most pieces about drug addicts," Hodge says, "because we looked at it from their point of view. They have a soul. They have a sense of humor." They are awful and attractive--in a word, alive.

Welsh traces the appeal of his book to its adversarial stance. "There was a representation of British culture in classic Oxbridge fiction and movies like Four Weddings and a Funeral," he says, "that was one-dimensional--a kind of '80s middle-class, yuppie, Thatcherite, right-wing ideal. And that view of Britain in art went unchallenged. When Trainspotting came out, there was a sense of affirmation that different cultures actually existed." There was also the pleasure of Welsh's heady prose and unsentimental view of the druggies, a take that Hodge and Boyle turn into giddy film art. They avoid the socialist-realist, Ken Loach approach in which the director is a well-meaning social worker. "Realism can't help making this into a story about victims," says Boyle. "We wanted to kick it with humor and surrealism."

Boyle and Hodge did the same thing with their first film, the 1994 Shallow Grave. Hodge, a physician who left medicine to work on scripts (but plans to return soon to hospital work), wrote this macabre comedy about three flatmates who discover a dead body, a suitcase full of cash and their own darkest impulses; one of the three goes bats after having to cut off the corpse's hands, feet and head. Andrew MacDonald, eager to become a producer, brought in Boyle, who had directed for television and at the Royal Shakespeare Company. They got backing from Channel 4, cast young McGregor as one of the roomies and hatched a surprise international hit. Hodge was offered rewrite jobs, "mainly on things that involved dismemberment." Fortunately, MacDonald discovered Welsh's novel.

Hollywood is still beckoning. Boyle was asked to direct Alien 4 but finally declined the offer "because you can't contribute much; it's a machine." But this fall Boyle, Hodge, MacDonald and McGregor will team up again for A Life Less Ordinary, a Hodge original that Boyle describes as an "incredibly optimistic love story."

For now they can take satisfaction in knowing that Trainspotting has hit an open vein in pop culture--at home and now, perhaps, despite its director's misgivings, in the U.S. "There's a generation that wants things like Pulp Fiction and Trainspotting," says Boyle, "because they help them proclaim their position. It's their film; they use it as a badge." Like rock 'n' roll: kids love it, in part, because their parents hate it.

But there's a better reason to love Trainspotting. In an era in which every movie seems way longer than it has to be, this one packs a whole multiplex worth of black-and-blue comedy into 94 minutes. The film is about joy--in conniving and surviving, in connecting with audiences, in its own fizzy, jizzy style. And that's why, compared with it, most other films look zombified. Death hangs like crape over Renton and his mates, but the movie couldn't be more vital. So say it without irony: Trainspotting chooses life.