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Review: It can’t touch the original, but ‘Don’t Breathe 2’ has a few surprises of its own

Stephen Lang holds a hammer in a scene from the film "Don't Breathe 2."
Stephen Lang returns in “Don’t Breathe 2.”
(Sony)

Fede Álvarez’s 2016 thriller “Don’t Breathe” is genre filmmaking at its best: a cleverly plotted, marvelously acted and handsomely shot picture where each big twist changes the audience’s perception of what they’re watching. Was this a movie about three ruthless young Detroit heist artists trying to land a big score by ripping off a lonely blind man? Or was it about three desperate dreamers trying to survive a night in a house with a guy who turns out to be a monster?

“Don’t Breathe 2” starts out almost as a retread of “Don’t Breathe,” before becoming something quite different. It’s mostly successful, if never in a way that improves on what came before. Then again it would be hard to better “Don’t Breathe,” a model of how to tell an unforgettable tale of suspense.

Álvarez and his co-writer Rodo Sayagues switch roles for the follow-up: Sayagues slips into the director’s chair, with Álvarez as his co-writer. Stephen Lang returns too as Norman Nordstrom, the blind man from “Don’t Breathe,” who has the survival skills of a Navy SEAL and has been driven by tragedy to extreme acts of vengeful cruelty.

Fans of “Don’t Breathe” will likely find it hard not to notice, ruefully, the many places where the sequel deviates from what the original did well. In the first film, Álvarez and Sayagues toyed with the viewers’ sympathies, giving us reasons to root for the robbers and for Norman, before finally revealing Norman’s darkest secret. In “Don’t Breathe 2,” the lines are more clearly drawn: Norman is now the heroic guardian of an abandoned pre-teen named Phoenix (Madelyn Grace), who has become the target of a local gang led by murderous meth kingpin Raylan (Brendan Sexton III).

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There are stylistic and tonal differences too. Though both films share the cinematographer Pedro Luque, the luminous reds, yellows and blues of “Don’t Breathe” have now given way to a grayer palette, cloaked in deep shadows. And while Norman’s physical limitations were more of a factor in the first film, in the sequel he at times seems superhuman as he defends his new house — and Phoenix — from Raylan’s goons. The overall violence and gore level too has been cranked up.

But Sayagues and Álvarez have a good sense of how to reprise what worked before without being merely repetitive. Like its predecessor, “Don’t Breathe 2” tells a lot of its story with minimal dialogue, letting us think along with the characters — including the creeps invading Norman’s home to kidnap Phoenix, as they sneak around through a labyrinthine house filled with locked chambers and hidden escapes.

And though there are fewer shocking twists this time out, Sayagues and Álvarez do spring a few doozies late in the film — including the belated entrance of a surprise character whose introduction makes great use of the film’s shadow motif. What starts as another home invasion story takes some genuinely wild and unexpected turns in its last half-hour.

The biggest knock against “Don’t Breathe 2” is that it lacks the original’s subtle but ultimately animating theme, which involved the way Detroit’s decay itself was driving some otherwise decent people to make some awful choices. In the sequel the blight is even more pronounced, to the extent that the movie’s setting looks almost post-apocalyptic. But the location isn’t really meant to elicit sympathy, or to get people thinking about what happens when a once-great city becomes effectively abandoned. Instead, it’s more reflective of Raylan’s own moral rot (played magnificently by Sexton).

In the end, the true test for all sequels is whether they can play well even to people who’ve never seen what came before. And the answer here is a qualified yes. Honestly, “Don’t Breathe 2” might be even more gripping and tense to anyone who has no firsthand experience of the original.

Álvarez and Sayagues have delivered a blood-spattered potboiler that’s no work of genius but is much better than average. As their over-stressed antihero Norman knows well, in this horribly unforgiving and unfair world sometimes you have to take a win wherever you can get it.

'Don’t Breathe 2'

Rated: R for strong bloody violence, gruesome images and language

Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes

Playing: In general release


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