A late-summer surprise hit, Fede Alvarez’s Don’t Breathe was a breath of fresh air when it was released at the tail end of summer 2016. The tight craft, maximum usage of its setting and high-concept, not to mention the perfect casting of its star, Stephen Lang, all coalesced into a thrilling little genre flick that left a lasting impression. Five years later, the sequel finds Lang’s “Blind Man” returning to the big screen in a different fashion, one that’s intriguing to say the least. While Don’t Breathe 2 trades in the first movie’s high concept thrills and exceptional craft for a more straightforward genre movie, it accomplishes just enough of what it sets out to achieve.
Several years after the events of the first film, the Blind Man (Stephen Lang) continues to live an isolated life in a cabin where he now acts as a caretaker for a young orphan, Phoenix (Madelyn Grace) after losing her parents in a house fire years ago. When a group of kidnappers break into the man’s home looking for Phoenix, they’ll soon realize the hell they’ve created for themselves. Director Rodo Sayagues, who co-wrote the first film, takes over directing duties from Fede Alvarez — also co-writing the screenplay — and any slick, sophisticated visual knack Alvarez brought to the first film is sorely lacking here. Sayagues, a first-time filmmaker, delivers firmly on the more amplified twisted elements, but the lack of suspense or style starves Don’t Breathe 2 of its potential.
The big new twist for this sequel is how the filmmakers portray the Blind Man, this time with the intention of an anti-hero. Despite the character attempting to “ahem” baster a kidnapped woman in hopes of giving him a new child after losing his actual one in the first film, Sayagues and Alvarez are setting out for you to initially sympathize with him. Of course, you can’t have a rapist as our cut-and-dry hero, so the writers successfully introduce a clever new morality twist. Without giving anything away, the true intentions of what’s at stake and the characters true motivations do present something more complex than you would initially expect from a film like this. Despite walking back certain elements late in the game, this new moralistic take is a welcome addition that helps set Don’t Breathe 2 apart from most horror sequels.
The Blind Man character is presented more humanly this time around, contrasting from the first films portrayal of him as something reminiscent of a ruthless, shark-like hunter. While this new portrayal does give actor Stephen Lang the opportunity to terrifically infuse more depth and pathos to the role, it does also take away from the many creative storytelling devices the writers were able to milk out of the character in the first film. Save for some killer set pieces in the films pull-no-punches finale, the Blind Man isn’t portrayed as eerily this time around. As if in the span of one film, the writers went from Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th Parts 2 & 3, to the Jason Voorhees in Parts 7 & 8.
Luckily for the filmmakers, watching Stephen Lang take out nameless baddies is a nasty thrill, indeed. The violence here is just vicious, and backed by some great gore FX. The unholy finale, in particular, serves as a showcase for some truly inspired kills and a number of inventive dismemberments. The last act is also where Sayagues finds his directorial footing, nailing just the right beats for a packed house to really get their money’s worth of cheers, gasps and laughs.
Don’t Breathe 2 delivers firmly on its ambitions as a dopey grindhouse flick. While a sizable step down from its predecessor, its twisted sensibilities pare well with Stephen Lang’s terrifically imposing presence that overshadows its more glaring flaws. It’s a bit of a wonder that both this and The Suicide Squad — two of the goriest mainstream titles in quite some time — are released just weeks from each other.