Don't Breathe is one of the most suspenseful thrillers of the past decade. I vividly recall the sensation of my body, which had been tense for ninety straight minutes, relaxing when it was over. Now comes Don't Breathe 2, a sequel that shoots itself in the foot right out of the gate by making the villain from the original the hero this time. That's right, the guy who chained a woman in his basement and attempted to forcibly impregnate her with a turkey baster is who we're supposed to root for. It doesn't even matter that he confesses to being “a monster” late in the film. Who in their right mind wants to cheer on this psychopath?
The monster, of course, is Norman Nordstrom (Stephen Lang), a blind former Navy SEAL. He obsessively cares for an 11-year-old girl named Phoenix (Madelyn Grace) who is supposedly his daughter. Norman is compassionate toward her, yet rarely lets her out of his sight. He also trains her in self-defense, an act that comes in handy when a group of thugs breaks into their home. Raylan (Brendan Sexton III) is the leader of the gang, and he has a strong interest in getting his hands on Phoenix. Norman has to fight them off before they can abscond with the girl.
The appeal of the first Don't Breathe was the simplicity of its presence. Three financially-strapped young people break into a blind man home to rob him. He shuts off the power so they're plunged into darkness, just as he is. Since he's used to maneuvering around without being able to see, he's suddenly got an advantage. It's a clean, effective concept. With its single settling and clever flip-flop of power, the movie was able to tell a taut story.
Don't Breathe 2, on the other hand, ties itself into knots trying to come up with a premise that extends naturally from the original, and it fails miserably. Bouncing around locations robs the sequel of that vital claustrophobic feel. A lot of violent mayhem takes place, yet almost none of it is exciting since the stakes are made lower. Similarly, the thing Raylan wants Phoenix for is so patently absurd that it inspires many more chuckles than chills. It's almost like the filmmakers took everything that worked the first time and threw it out the window.
Then there's the issue of making Norman the protagonist. In doing so, Don't Breathe 2 attempts to redeem the character. When you have a fearsome villain like this, and you have an actor as skilled as Stephen Lang portraying him, why wouldn't you want to keep him evil? The idea, I suppose, was to make Raylan even more evil, so that Norman can use his own malignant nature in a more benevolent manner. But the way the film does that is to put a child in peril – literally the cheapest, laziest manipulation imaginable.
Lang, Sexton, and Grace are all good in their roles. The story is what lets them down. Director Rodo Sayagues and co-writer Fede Alvarez (who switch roles this time around) already told their story. Because it made money, they're now extending it, despite having nowhere logical to go.
out of four
Don't Breathe 2 is rated R for strong bloody violence, gruesome images, and language. The running time is 1 hour and 38 minutes.