Skip to main content

‘Don’t Breathe 2’ Review: Can a monster become a hero?

Rodo Sayagues’ ‘Don’t Breathe 2’ reintroduces Stephen Lang’s blind murderer from the first film as a protective father in a protagonist role.

Stephen Lang in 'Don't Breathe 2.'
(Image: © Sony)

Our Verdict

‘Don’t Breathe 2’ is a pulse pounder and a jawbreaker in terms of its heated action accentuations, but does struggle at times with its narrative challenge of continuing a killer's story this way.

For

  • 🔨 Shift to action-heavy beats is successful.
  • 🔨 Stephen Lang is a powerhouse.
  • 🔨 Madelyn Grace is a trooper.
  • 🔨 It’s got a nastiness that will please some...

Against

  • 🔨 ...and push away others.
  • 🔨 Is there really a character to root for?
  • 🔨 Easy to get hung up on the narrative dilemma.
  • 🔨 A bit one-note in terms of skull-crusher action.

I see Don’t Breathe 2 as an exception to my personal critiquing bylaws. I loathe when the term “unnecessary” is used as a negative ding because, frankly, is any film “necessary?” Legendary narratives have emerged from the shallowest primordial pools, and critics should assess every moviegoing adventure on its execution—but did Don’t Breathe’s Norman Nordstrom truly deserve a revival, let alone redemption? Better yet, would Rodo Sayagues’ sequel grant him redemption? I entered Don’t Breathe 2 with trepidation over how Sayagues and Fede Alvarez could reintroduce the perverse basting bastard as some form of protagonist. This precaution waned because hero creation isn’t the name of Sayagues’ continuation. Expect more of the same blindsiding brutality, which won’t convert anyone staunchly against Don’t Breathe. Sayagues emphasizes the “thrill” in this thriller of suspect origin.

Stephen Lang returns as Norman Nordstrom, an ex-Marine with a past that includes kidnapping, murder, and sexual assault. Now he’s the caretaker to a meth lab explosion survivor some eight years removed from the incident (played by Madelyn Grace), who he raises as his own daughter. It’s a convoluted ruse that distracts Nordstrom’s broken heart, but his finders-keepers child starts to yearn for everyday life outside enclosed regulation. Nordstrom loosens the reins and allows a visit into town, where his kiddo catches the eye of bathroom creeper Raylan (Brendan Sexton III)—which brings a posse of criminals knocking on Nordstrom’s door in search of the girl or a fight.

I see glimmers of 2000s nihilistic, horror-influenced actioners like Death Sentence in Don’t Breathe 2, where bludgeonings trump narrative throughlines. Lang is more militant as Nordstrom, launching into sonically charged battles versus playing defensive lineman on home turf, and it’s gruesomely unhinged. There’s no replication of Alvarez’s blackout basement labyrinth, swapped for Nordstrom’s tactical sonar offense that counters overwhelming militant odds as degenerate drug peddlers are tenderized, headshotted, and skewered with squeamish ruthlessness. Nordstrom angles a Stallone or Schwarzenegger arc by pulverizing deserving parties to save an innocent life as means of separation from his previous appearance. Sayagues seeks a concoction of Don’t Breathe meets Simon West, where silence becomes less thematic while badass survivalist mode engages.

The struggle becomes parsing out Nordstrom’s rapist backstory from his heartbroken father figure, an anti-hero by default because kidnapper villains are that much more reprehensible. It’s a moral conundrum that colors Don’t Breathe 2 a particular shade of mucky as we’re forced to root for one monster by comparison, which I’m not sure is the steadiest character development pathway. Maybe there’s a message about acknowledgment, acceptance, and growth somewhere past the grindhouse action, but I’m not sure this particular script comprehends how to handle such heft. Lang’s deadly and dominant as Nordstrom and Madelyn Grace wholesomely (then unspeakably) demonstrates the wherewithal to react against deathtraps with zealousness—performances are never the issue. Instead, it’s grey areas of valiance that tangle wires.

Here’s my crossroads—Don’t Breathe 2 showcases righteous violence that puts innocent lambs in extreme trauma scenarios for the sake of ultimate impact. We feel Nortrom’s passionate selflessness when sparring with musclebound henchmen for no reason but his stolen child’s safety while recognizing the inherent complications. We squirm as Raylan’s abandoned hotel hideout becomes a breeding ground for the justification behind chosen families over blood bonds as gunsmoke clears and the film’s only meaningful redemption arc—a furious pooch—understands what revenge looks like in its most pettable form. Sayagues utilizes water ripples, smokescreens, and even calls back to Dylan Minnette’s cracked window suspense as means of amplifying Nordstrom’s enhanced senses or beatdowns, which is all tremendously intense as each punch, slash, and blunt-force battery hits harder than before. Pedro Luque’s cinematography is disgustingly grimy and delivers Sayagues’ grittier vision of a broken family, the eyeless cowboy, or derelict kingpin; I just needed someone else to champion at times.

Don’t Breathe 2 is a grimace-wince bloody, hack-slash corpse churner with family values at its core, and I’m not always sure what to do with that reality. In the end? I, myself, uphold the opinion that Rodo Sayagues channels the atmospheric nerviness of Don’t Breathe into something more rambunctiously punk-gratuitous in 80s exploitation terms, but that won’t sway all audiences into positive favor. Does Norman Nordstrom’s tenderness around four-legged companions and homeschool headmaster dedication negate what knowledge might prevent Don’t Breathe fans (or foes) from seeing the light in Don’t Breathe 2? Without a doubt, since even I—recommendation aside—still wrestle with my appreciation of punishing primal rage over foolproof reason in this questionably crushing franchise step forward of the most unexpected sort.