Track Stars

IN THE THROES OF HEROIN WITHdrawal, Mark Renton, the central character in Irvine Welsh's novel, ""Trainspotting,'' takes stock of his circumstances. His bones ache, his skin feels like it's on skewers. He has crippling nausea; his bloody tongue is nearly bit through. He's haunted by nightmares of wee Dawn, a neglected baby who died in the shooting gallery while he and his friends shot up. He's afraid to know his HIV status. Surely, he reasons, in his Scottish brogue, ""Thir must be less tae life than this.''

The film of ""Trainspotting,'' which comes to theaters later this month, crackles with this dead-end grit. In its brutally black-comic landscape, there is indeed less to life, and in abundance. There is the boredom of life in Renton's depressed Edinburgh suburb. And there is its partner in negation, drawn in ecstatic detail: heroin. Renton's course is manifest. He kicks the drug. Then goes back on it. Over the beat of Iggy Pop's double-edged punk anthem, ""Lust for Life,'' he draws his agenda with bracing clarity. ""I chose not to choose life: I chose something else.'' He is a Hamlet of the shooting gallery: handsome, philosophical and keen to life's ambivalences. ""And the reasons?'' he continues. ""There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you've got heroin?''

Heroin, the corner we constantly think we've turned, is enjoying a high and styling profile these days. ""Trainspotting,'' a loosely constructed tale about friendship and junk in Scotland, is the second-highest-grossing British movie of all time, after ""Four Weddings and a Funeral.'' It is also a hugely successful novel and stage production. The hit Broadway musical ""Rent'' celebrates the vitality of East Village bohemians, some of them junkies; it dominated this year's Tony awards. This spring's runways and fashion spreads showed off a look that has been dubbed heroin chic: alarmingly thin models styled to highlight clammy skin, sunken eyes and a trashed afterglow. Just as stylish are a new batch of anti- heroin public-service announcements, in which hip, good-looking young people retail their heroin scars. These works all serve different purposes. But amid the rise in real heroin use, they tap the same thorny paradox: part of heroin's allure lies in its destructiveness.

""Trainspotting'' is the most artfully ambivalent of the bunch. Directed by Danny Boyle, who made the arch cult thriller ""Shallow Grave,'' the film twists with a junkie's logic. It does not preach; it wallows in the pain and, more daringly, in the pleasure. As Renton says, ""People think it's all about misery and desperation and death and all that st, which is not to be ignored. But what they forget is the pleasure of it. Otherwise we wouldn't do it.'' It is from this pointed distinction that ""Trainspotting'' draws its power and wickedly black humor. ""What disappoints a lot of people,'' says Welsh, ""is that the characters aren't portrayed as depressed victims.'' Instead, they're lively, likable. And although their Scots dialect is sometimes difficult, it's also the music of a compelling energy. Welsh briefly used heroin back in 1982. After the novel's success, he says, a longtime addict asked him where he got off writing about junk, since he'd had such a short affair with the drug. ""But I say, who's had the most successful relationship with heroin between the two of us?''

Trainspotting is the British hobby of watching for trains and collecting engine numbers. Welsh calls it a nice metaphor for heroin use: an arbitrary way ""to give your pointless life structure.'' The movie follows six friends as they dart in and out of drug use, usually emerging long enough to revisit their sex drives. Renton (Ewan McGre gor, the most engaging in an exuberant young cast) is a college dropout, too smart to go down with his friends, too stymied to do better. Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) is a priapic rogue with a Sean Connery fixation and a unifying theory of life (""You've got it, and then you lose it, and it's gone forever''). Spud (Ewen Bremner) is the poor soul upon whom all rain and other matters must fall. Begbie (Robert Carlyle) is a violent psychopath who appears comfortable with only one word of English -- it can't be printed here -- but makes it serve for all occasions. The innocent Tommy (Kevin McKidd) is the last one in the pool, the first to drown. And Diane (Kelly Macdonald) is the precocioussexual savant from the next generation, who reminds them that in drugs, as in other fashions, they had best keep current.

This is the most secular of drug movies. There's no spiritual quest; the highs are purely visceral, the lows even more so. In the film's indelible centerpiece, Renton dives into an appallingly foul public toilet to retrieve a pair of opium suppositories. It is a scene guaranteed to separate the men from the sick boys in the audience. On the set of the movie, actors took counsel from members of the Calton Athletic Club, a hard-core drug-rehab program. Calton members gave ""cookery'' classes, teaching the actors how to prepare a shot, how to draw just a little blood back into the syringe before injecting the drug into the prosthetic arm. Eamon Doherty, a reformed addict who started using at 15, was one of the Calton advisers. He had no objection to the toilet bit. ""I woulda done it,'' he says. ""Oh, definitely.''

""Trainspotting'' was kept out of competition at the Cannes festival, the filmmakers believe, because of the subject matter. It is, by their lights, anti-drug. Still, like all heroin movies, ""Trainspotting'' is ultimately infected with heroin's mystique. According to Boyle, during the course of shooting, McGregor, strongly phobic about hypos, began to feel the addict's needle fixation. ""He was desperate to be injected by the end of it.'' Such is the film's strength; it captures the romance of its milieu. It is a romance that is seductive yet repellent, terrifying but hilarious, depressing and exhilarating. ""Trainspotting'' is a lousy piece of propaganda. But it is a masterful waltz on the wild side.