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‘Don’t Breathe 2’ Didn’t Need to ‘Breathe’

Why jam what would work as an original idea into a sequel box?
August 20, 2021
‘Don’t Breathe 2’ Didn’t Need to ‘Breathe’
(Sony Pictures / BAD HOMBRE FILMS / Ghost House Pictures)

This review essay discusses plot points from Don’t Breathe 2, including portions of the ending if not the actual ending, so please stop here if you’re spoiler-averse and have yet to see the film.

As I walked out of my local Alamo Drafthouse after an evening showing of Don’t Breathe 2, I was mildly vexed. The movie wasn’t very good—hacky dialogue and a plain-Jane shooting style that rarely bothered to do anything interesting—but even that not-very-goodness could potentially be overlooked if it weren’t for the fact that this is a movie that has no reason to be a sequel. And, in fact, is actively damaged by the fact that it’s a sequel.

To refresh your memory: Don’t Breathe was a surprise hit in the fall of 2016, grossing $26 million on its opening weekend on the way to $158 million worldwide off a nearly $10 million budget. The premise was pretty simple: A trio of house-robbing teens breaks into a blind man’s (Stephen Lang) house with the intention of stealing a large amount of money from him. But the former Navy SEAL puts up a fight, having home-field advantage and a secret to hide—he has kidnapped the woman who killed his daughter, imprisoned her in his basement, and impregnated her in order to replace the daughter he lost—that renders him even more villainous than the kids who are trying to rob him.

It was a solid high-concept thriller shot with impeccable style by Fede Alvarez with an incredible twist and completed in a tight 90 minutes. And, as a bonus, it was based on an original idea, a nice treat for an audience starved of them.

Don’t Breathe sets up a sequel—one of the teens gets away with the money and the blind man doesn’t report it stolen, suggesting he’s coming for her—but Don’t Breathe 2 abandons all that. Instead, we open with a shot that echoes the first film’s opening moments, as the Blind Man cradles a young girl in his arms and carries her away.

Flash forward eight years: Phoenix (Madelyn Grace) and the Blind Man (Lang again) live outside Detroit in a run-down house from which they grow plants they sell to a landscaping shop. Phoenix, a young teenager, is allowed to visit the city with an employee of said shop if she finishes her survivalist training but otherwise is isolated in the burbs with the Blind Man. Until, that is, a group of men invade his home, take Phoenix, and return to the city.

I won’t get into the reasons for all this except to say that they’re both amusingly demented and totally unrelated to anything that happens in the first film. Furthermore, the action of the film moves from the Blind Man’s house to an abandoned hotel in Detroit.

Now. As a reminder. The reason the high concept of Don’t Breathe worked is that it’s completely reasonable that the Blind Man would be able to defend his home since, despite being blind—or perhaps even because he’s blind—he knows it really, really well. He knows where the walls and the pipes and the windows and the tools are. He knows his way around and his SEAL training gives him the upper hand when he goes toe-to-toe with the thugs who break into his house. Fine. Fair enough. Ridiculous, sure, but at least internally consistent and logical.

But moving the Blind Man to a random hotel in Detroit completely destroys the logic of the concept. It breaks the spell woven by the first movie by reminding you that, even if he knew the layout of his house perfectly, the reality is that a blind guy taking down multiple killers all by himself is patently absurd.

Here’s the thing: There’s no reason whatsoever that Don’t Breathe 2 needs to be a Don’t Breathe sequel. There’s nothing in the plot that requires it; there’s nothing in the concept that allows for it. It is, simply, the use of intellectual property to bang out a sequel that might make a little extra money via increased name recognition.

And this is what was annoying me so much as I walked out of the theater. I would love for Stephen Lang to have a Liam Neeson-style run as an old-man action hero: Stephen Lang is absolutely one of my favorite actors and he is built to kill. He’s fantastic in Don’t Breathe and VFW, and he’s one of the key players in the highest-grossing film of all time, Avatar; there’s no reason he can’t carve out a niche for himself as a guy who commits righteous violence in modestly budgeted actioners.

But Lang’s been done a disservice here. The assumption is that the title, not he, is the draw. I think it’s a mistake. And I think it’s one that fatally damages what might have been a pretty solid action flick.

Sonny Bunch

Sonny Bunch is the Culture Editor of The Bulwark. Before serving as editor-in-chief of the film site Rebeller, he was the executive editor of and film critic for The Washington Free Beacon. He is currently a contributor to The Washington Post and his work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, Commentary Magazine, The Weekly Standard, and elsewhere. He is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association