“DON’T BREATHE 2 MOVIE REVIEW”

The message in co-writer & director Rodo Sayagues’ above-average sequel “Don’t Breathe 2” (**1/2 OUT OF ****) is don’t mess with a blind man. Stephen Lang reprises his memorable role as the indestructible Norman Nordstrom, the blind homeowner in Fede Alvarez’s “Don’t Breathe” (2016), and he is the only character from the original movie.

This gruesome, heavy-handed, far-fetched follow-up must have been a nightmare for its focus group. Nobody remotely qualifies as a role model in the macabre Fede Alvarez & Rodo Sayagues screenplay. Unfortunately, this violent, gritty, nail-biting suspense thriller lacks the infinite imagination of its frightening, claustrophobic predecessor.

Indeed, the blind guy in “Don’t Breathe” was a murderer, a kidnapper, and a rapist. Although hardly a poster boy for any cause, Nordstrom’s zeal for revenge motivated his behavior. Not only had a reckless motorist killed his daughter in a car accident, but her lawyer also had used loophole in the law to exonerate her.

Consequently, Norman kidnapped and impregnated her in hopes of siring a replacement daughter! Inexplicably, for the sequel, Alvarez and Sayagues have rehabilitated the former Navy Seal blinded by shrapnel in the Gulf War.

Moreover, they have made him over into a kind-hearted but grumpy old guy with a soft spot for dogs. Nordstrom emerges as far less villainous than the cretinous goons with whom he tangles in this white-knuckled, R-rated, 98-minute sequel.

Lang’s compelling performance as the “Don’t Breathe” villain ferreting out the burglars in his home was unforgettable. Alas, this same character struggles to redeem himself as a father figure raising an eleven-year-old girl whose fate hangs in limbo. While “Don’t Breathe 2” qualifies as far less straight-forward than its forerunner, it is far more complicated.

The wholly despicable villains this time around are depraved tweakers. The meth-heads’ leader has been searching for his own long-lost daughter. Quite by accident, early in the story, he finds her and sets out to bring her home to her mom.

“Don’t Breathe 2” takes place eight years after “Don’t Breathe.” Raylan (Brendan Sexton III of “Russian Doll”) and his crackhead wife (Fiona O’Shaughnessy of “The Halo Effect”) were cooking up meth when an explosion destroyed their basement lab and flames wreathed their house. Suffering grievously during the inferno, Raylan’s wife inhaled smoke and flames.

Although she survived, her heart as well as her lungs were permanently impaired. Now, she needs a heart transplant or she will die. Her doctors insist a blood relative must be donor. Once he has served out his eight-year prison sentence for meth, Raylan combs Detroit for their missing daughter.

Miraculously, Raylan lucks up and finds his daughter, Phoenix (newcomer Madelyn Grace). Our eleven-year-old heroine doesn’t remember either her mom or her dad. Apparently, Norman discovered the urchin in the charred remains of Raylan’s house.

Afterward, the blind man took her home and nursed her back to health. No, Norman never adopted her. Meantime, he teaches Phoenix how to survive in this ugly world and rarely lets her go out on her own alone. The only person Norman trusts is a former U.S. Army Ranger, Hernandez (Stephanie Arcila of “The Aliens”), who keeps him stocked with supplies.

Hernandez persuades him to let her take Phoenix into the city for a girl’s day out. As far as Phoenix knows, she has no relatives. Raylan is surprised when he stumbles across her. Naturally, the little girl doesn’t trust Raylan and evades his clutches because Norman’s intimidating Rottweiler Shadow came between Raylan and her.

Later, Raylan and company tail Hernandez to Norman’s two-story home. Tragically, Hernandez isn’t around long after she takes the impressionable little girl back to Norman. One of Raylan’s fiends buries a hammer in her skull and kills her.

The first thing Raylan and company do before they break into Norman’s house is lure Shadow out on a wild goose chase. Eventually, Norman leaves the house and searches for Shadow. Tragically, he finds the poor Rottweiler sprawled in its own blood in the wilderness.

Our white-haired hero returns to his house and clashes with the tweakers. Norman gets sliced up quite a bit in the process. Scrambling into the basement, Phoenix conceals herself in a compact metal cabinet with a steel grille for a lid. One of Raylan’s henchmen floods the cabinet and dangles two live electrical wires inches above the water line. He threatens to electrocute Phoenix unless she bails out. About this time, Norman shows up and starts whittling down Raylan’s thugs.

Unfortunately, Raylan’s henchmen overpower Norman, catch Raylan’s daughter, and bombard Norman’s grand, old, wooden mansion with flaming Molotov cocktails. Norman barely escapes from the raging conflagration. At one point, Raylan had turned loose his own dog to prowl the premises for our hero.

Norman had a chance to kill Raylan’s dog, but he lets the canine live. After Raylan and company leave, Norman puts Raylan’s hound on a leash and lets the dog lead him to Raylan’s hang-out in a condemned motel. Raylan and his thugs do their best to kill the blind man, but a resilient Norman survives all attempts. Warning: don’t exit the theater as the end credits roll, otherwise you’ll miss a critical end scene.

“Don’t Breathe” spawned this problematic sequel because it coined $157 million on a measly $10-million budget. Imagine our young heroine’s surprise when she discovers that the family reunion she has dreamed about will be short-lived because mom desperately needs her heart and father needs mom to keep cooking up meth for their livelihood.

Sayagues and “Don’t Breathe” lenser Pedro Luque have done a splendid job of evoking fear, especially when Phoenix discovers to her horror that she has been lined up as the donor who will provide her dying mom with a new lease on life. Whew!

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