MOVIE REVIEW: DON’T BREATHE 2 is an ill-advised franchise revisit that just doesn’t work


Writer/director Rodo Sayagues attempts to flip Stephen Lang’s villain from the original film into a John Wick-style action hero in this follow-up that doesn’t land at all.

Writer Rodo Sayagues and director Fede Alvarez created one of 2016’s most-talked-about horror movies with their original horror film Don’t Breathe. Set in modern dilapidated Detroit, the original film followed a group of robbers who set out to rob blind Gulf War veteran Norman Nordstrom (Stephen Lang) of a $300,000 settlement they believe he received after the death of his daughter. Little do they know, that Nordstrom has kidnapped his daughter’s killer and kept her hostage in his basement so that he could impregnate her with his sperm and get a replacement daughter, a literal lump of flesh, from her killer. One could argue that it’s an eye for an eye scenario, but the better argument is that it is a reprehensible action that makes him a rapist. Regardless, Nordstrom manages to systematically kill the worst of his attackers, but it does not make him a redemptive figure.

In Don’t Breathe 2, opening this Friday the 13th, Rodo Sayagues takes both the writing and directing helm and delivers something of a franchise reset that tries to posit Nordstorm as a heroic figure in the mold of Charles Bronson’s Paul Kersey from the Death Wish films. For those unfamiliar with that series, Death Wish finds Bronson hunting down and killing muggers in the city after his daughter is sexually assaulted as a way of assuaging his pain at what happened to her. It also seems to be a naked attempt to get in on the popularity of vigilante films spurred on by the success of 2014’s John Wick. This franchise rebrand largely doesn’t work, as Nordstrom’s actions in the first film make him a troublesome protagonist. As such, Don’t Breathe 2 largely doesn’t touch on the events of the first film at all, save for Nordstrom’s background as something of a survivalist with a military background who wants to be left alone.

In this film, we meet Nordstrom as he rescues a young girl he names Phoenix (Madelyn Grace) from a raging house fire. He takes her as his own daughter and the film jumps several years as Nordstrom trains her to hide with his knowledge of survivalism should they need to flee at some point. She wants to make friends at a local halfway house, but he forbids it. Her only contact with the outside world is going into town with local cop Hernandez (Stephanie Arcila). It’s on one of these trips when she goes into the bathroom, that she is confronted by Raylan (Brendan Sexton III) who tries to befriend her. But soon, it is obvious he plans to take her from the old blind man, no matter the cost.

At this point, the film is largely a retread of the first film, as Raylan and his men raid Nordstrom’s house, and we revisit Nordstrom’s incredible murder skills as he tries to take out the attackers, using the environment of his home as a weapon. There’s an intriguing set piece involving a panic box that Phoenix locks herself in that Raylan’s men try to smoke her out of by filling it with water. But, by and large, this is all more of the first film’s climax revisited. It’s cool, but it is nothing new. The twist to this rehash comes up when the men get the better of Nordstrom and he has to meet them on his turf as a blind man.

This would be all well and good, but largely, Don’t Breathe 2 turns Nordstrom into a Batman-like figure who given enough crums will MacGuyver himself a solution to defeat his enemies as violently as possible. It’s far-fetched, but if kidnapping his would-be daughter and taking away his home advantage isn’t enough, they take out his dog in a very calculated John Wick reference which is brutal to watch. Moreover, the reason for kidnapping Phoenix is almost laughable in its insanity and implausibility and the premise of the film largely becomes which terrible person will she end up with at the end. When your film’s erstwhile heroine’s greatest wish is to live at a halfway house, you’re dealing with a very bleak film, and Don’t Breathe 2 is bleak in spades. Regardless of how terrible Sayagues has to make Raylan and his men’s purpose for kidnapping a child to make Nordstrom seem like a good guy in comparison, he never comes across as a good guy in the film. He keeps Phoenix away from children, a veritable prisoner in his home with no agency. So when we have to see Nordstrom as heroic, it is only on his terms; because he has to greatly suffer physically to try to make him atone for his actions. But ultimately, his actions are directed to keeping Phoenix locked away for himself. It just doesn’t work.

That being said, Grace has to do a lot of heavy lifting in the film with her performance, as she has to be compelling enough to keep the audience invested in her fate and she does so in spades. She has a good screen presence and I look forward to seeing her do more in better films. But she does the best with what she is given, especially in the film’s cringy ending scene which is completely lifted from a popular film and is easy to spot. Lang tries his best to make Nordstrom a redemptive figure, but it just doesn’t work, especially when his contribution to that is just killing junkies who are in the way of him getting his surrogate daughter back. His main redemptive scene doesn’t work and the film even waffles on his ultimate fate, lending his redemption somewhat mute.

Ultimately, you can’t reform every villain into a franchise hero. Not everyone is Riddick or The Terminator, and certainly not a death trap obsessed would-be rapist turned authoritarian father figure. You want to cheer for your heroes, not just the lesser of two evils, even if the other evil is over the top in its ludicrous intentions.