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Don’t Breathe 2 buries a great action film inside a so-so exploitation movie

The thriller sequel could have used a little less grime, or a whole lot more

Stephan Lang’s Norman Nordstrom in Don’t Breathe 2 Image: Sony Pictures

Don’t Breathe 2, the newly released follow-up to 2016’s horror-thriller directed by Fede Alvarez, is like a sloppy Joe made with finely aged wagyu beef. Is it enjoyable? Yes, but it’s also gross and morally questionable. And more importantly, it’s hard not to imagine all of the better things rookie director Rodo Sayagues, who also co-wrote this movie and the original, could have made with ingredients this good.

The first Don’t Breathe follows a group of teenagers who break into the home of blind veteran Norman Nordstrom (Stephen Lang) to steal his small fortune. They don’t realize he’s an ex-Navy Seal who’s angry at the world for his daughter’s tragic, accidental death, and he turns their attempted robbery into a nightmare cat-and-mouse scenario. Norman’s resentment of the intruders may be understandable, but he does reprehensible things in the film, making choices that don’t allow for later redemption. His horrific actions hang around Don’t Breathe 2 like an albatross for the first hour or so, as the new story continues to follow him.

Norman Nordstrom listening intently in Don’t Breathe 2 Image: Sony Pictures

In the sequel, Norman finds a young girl named Phoenix (Madelyn Grace) outside of a burning house, and takes her in as his daughter. He homeschools her and teaches her survival skills, but after eight years, a mysterious group of people come to his house to kidnap Phoenix, setting him up to once again defend his home from intruders.

Like the first movie, Don’t Breathe 2 is at its creepiest when all of its characters are trapped inside Norman’s house. Sayagues creates exceptional tension, comfortably exploiting long stretches of quiet, and letting characters creep into and out of otherwise static shots.

In one particularly effective scene, Phoenix tries to escape the house just as the would-be kidnappers arrive. Sayagues snakes the cameras through the narrow hallways, carefully dodging between Phoenix’s stealthy escape, and the bewildered intruders trying to find her. It’s incredibly intense, before it’s broken up by the relief of Norman’s first real action in the movie — though many more follow.

Norman Nordstrom grabbing an intruder in Don’t Breathe 2 Image: Sony Pictures

Don’t Breathe plays out like a slasher, with the teens as the main characters, and Norman as the ruthlessly efficient hunter. But the sequel is closer to an action movie, with Norman and his assailants trading blows at every confrontation. These action scenes are where Sayagues proves himself most capable. The scenes are uniquely lit and staged, both in Norman’s house and out of it, with slow, purposeful camera work that puts extra emphasis on the weight behind each punch and stab. Lang is also outstanding at portraying Norman’s physicality, and he throws his entire weight behind every hit the character gets and gives. Every fight in this movie looks like it hurts.

While the time inside Norman’s house is excellent, and feels like a clever echo of the first movie’s first half, the second half once again gets weird. The action shifts elsewhere, and the tone shifts into an entirely new genre, taking a hard turn from a creeping thriller into an exploitation movie. The new setting almost appears post-apocalyptic: It’s an abandoned building that the movie’s home-invading villains have set up as a base. It’s dilapidated and crumbling around them, as if their various horrible deeds — it turns out there are quite a few — are literally pulling the plaster of the building down around them. It’s a haunting location for Sayagues to explore, but it almost pulls the movie too far down into the muck.

From here, Don’t Breathe 2 turns grimy and rotten, and it becomes clear that the script’s way out of Norman’s horrible deeds in the original movie is simply to make everyone else in the world even worse. Instead of making Norman more sympathetic, the movie simply slides into moral repugnancy. With the first movie’s context in mind, it’s impossible to want anyone here to win. In fact, the movie even manages to pivot from its first half’s excessive seriousness into a pitch-black comedy for the second, simply by having each character find newer lows to sink to.

Stephen Lang’s character holding a hammer in Don’t Breathe 2 Image: Sony Pictures

One thing that doesn’t change in the second half is Sayagues’ fantastic action direction. The entire church feels designed exclusively to make the movie’s fights more exciting. Electrical rooms are bathed in blue light, with a thin layer of water covering the floor. It’s an OSHA nightmare, but it’s cool as hell, and the hazards give Norman a fighting chance against his non-visually-impaired assailants. Another scene covers an abandoned pool (why is there an indoor pool here? What kind of building is this?) in orange sunset-light, filtered through a cloud of insecticide gas, while two characters square off with knives and machetes.

It all looks gorgeous, but also like it’s from an entirely different movie than anything that precedes it. The grindhouse-grime of the villains’ plot and the exploitation-level gore, which would be at home in another version of this movie, feels like it diminishes Sayagues’ borderline-arthouse action scenes.

All of which makes Don’t Breathe 2 into a weird package that never fully meshes together. It’s too pretty for a midnight showing, but far too gross and skin-crawling for when the sun’s up. It could have either been a wonderful gourmet action-movie meal, or a greasy joyful mess that cult audiences love more than they should. Instead, it’s somewhere in the middle — a pretty good meal that doesn’t measure up to its individual ingredients.

Don’t Breathe 2 opens in theaters on Aug. 13.

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