Initiation is more action-thriller than horror, but if 2013’s captive-women-forced-to-fight film Raze can be considered horror by so many people, I suppose this can, too. The setup is similar to Raze, except with male captives, a smaller cast and presumably a much smaller budget.
In it, masked men kidnap five strangers and transport them to the middle of nowhere to engage in fisticuffs. Unlike Raze, they’re not fighting each other, but rather a group of pledges to some sort of frat boyish secret society in which killing someone with your bare hands is the final hurdle to entry. Each prisoner is forced to battle one-on-one with a pledge; if they win, they earn their freedom, and if they lose, they, well, die.
Of the five captives, the only two who seem like they can handle themselves are the two black guys, warehouse worker Wayne (Denell Johnson) and ex-Marine Simon (Adam Ryan Rennie). Part of my brain says I should take offense to the insinuation that all black dudes can fight, but as stereotypes go, this is only slightly below the whole big dick thing, so I can’t complain. And within the realm of horror movies, not being a sniveling sissy (like white guys Sean and Eric and Asian dude Rob) increases one’s chances of survival, so Wayne and Simon are really the viewer’s only hope for a happy ending.
Simon, it turns out, is the main protagonist, and throughout the film, we become privy to flashbacks that reveal his back story — his struggles to make it as a Marine like his father and grandfather — which cleverly builds the dramatic tension within two story lines simultaneously.
It’s a simple plot with nothing particularly original, but it works in part because of its humanity. While genre fare tends to paint characters in black and white, good and evil, man and mouse, several of Initiation‘s villains aren’t particularly gung-ho about the plan; they’re nervous and have moral qualms like, you know, real people would. And although Simon is the hero, he’s not exactly kickin’ ass, takin’ names and spoutin’ one-liners like Schwarzenegger; he struggles to merely survive, just as he did during boot camp.
The fighting likewise is realistic: messy and desperate, with biting, eye gouging, nut kicking, the whole nine — not exactly stylized Hollywood choreography (granted, that might’ve been more entertaining), but it adds to the film’s overall gritty appeal.
The cast delivers solid performances for such a modest film, particularly main baddie Dan Horton (who will forever be the love child of Patrick Swayze and the Governor from The Walking Dead in my eyes), David Terrell as Simon’s drill sergeant (black, natch) and Rennie, who striking, sharp features lend a certain Kaepernicky gravitas.
Interestingly, although all eight of the featured society members/pledges are white and 60% of the captives are minorities, race isn’t mentioned as an overt issue — the most negative insinuation coming from fellow prisoners who assume Wayne is a gang member because he has “that look.” If they’re not exactly skinheads, though, the kidnappers still come off as meat-headed “bros” whose air of exclusivity likely precludes anyone who doesn’t look like them from joining their White Club — er, Fight Club.