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Halle Berry’s directorial debut, “Bruised,” an unfocused inspirational sports story, opens with a hazy point of view shot, capturing a fighter in panic. It’s an MMA title bout set in the unforgiving octagon. The ringside announcers’ faint, echoed voices mark the drama: The formidable Jackie Justice (Halle Berry) isn’t just overmatched; she’s literally on the run, trying to scale the caged barrier to flee the contest. Fear coils her every labored breath as the camera fades to black.
Six years later, long after the banners have come down and the crowds have stopped cheering, she is a nanny, living with her blowhard boyfriend and manager, Desi (Adan Canto). Jackie is a has-been, a never-was, and a could’ve-been all rolled into one. She keeps a spray bottle of alcohol hidden underneath the kitchen sink. The neighborhood teens jeer at her. No one knows why Jackie tried to escape from the octagon years ago. They only know she hasn’t fought since. The want just isn’t inside her. It’s not until Manny (Danny Boyd Jr.), the six-year-old son she gave up for adoption returns, after the sudden death of his father, that she rediscovers her fighting spirit.
Berry’s “Bruised” is a familiar comeback tale relying on the inner-city motifs of 1990s hood films to deliver a melodramatic, barely coherent prestige vehicle with very little to say about MMA itself.
“Bruised” opens with a sharp jab by plunging Jackie back into the MMA world. She accompanies Desi to an unsanctioned underground fight to scout a potential brawler. Jackie isn’t there to fight, initially. But when a hulking opponent goads the tentative Jackie, a newly enraged Jackie—in a whirling combination of punches and canted angles—makes mincemeat of her in the most visceral tussle of the film. The confrontation brings her to the attention of Immaculate (Shamier Anderson). An independent promoter with conflicting intentions, he wants to go toe-to-toe with the UFC, and he thinks Jackie can be his ticket.
“Bruised” scuttles past that intriguing gambit toward a perplexing array of narratives. While a facially strained Berry looks the part of a washed-up fighter, somewhat in the vein of Hilary Swank in “Million Dollar Baby,” the film only takes tepid steps to outline what her past failures mean. Instead it balances how the introduction of her mute six-year-old, a boy beset by trauma, and the possibility of her fighting again, disrupts her relationship with her huckster boyfriend. The film oscillates between her trying to maintain her relationship with a jealous spouse and her undertaking a set of unfamiliar motherly responsibilities while she trains with legendary instructor Buddhakan (Sheila Atim), much to the trainer’s chagrin. In a film drowning in melodrama and artifice, Atim, a combination of Zen calm and a genuine want to be a giving scene partner, offers the only naturalistic performance among the cast.
Michelle Rosenfarb’s overbearing screenplay throws too many supposed curves without developing the film’s other arcs. We have the familiar drugged-out Black mother (Adriane Lenox); the abusive boyfriend; the inner-city child left to their own devices amid a disintegrating home life. There are hints of sexual abuse, and a queer-baiting romance that peters out as quickly as it bubbles to the surface. Even with the movie’s brutal pacing, none of these components are allotted enough time to be more than shallow tropes.
It’s difficult to call “Bruised” a passion project. Typically when an actor chooses material for their directorial debut, they gravitate toward a personal subject: It could be a childhood memory, or a formative book. With “Bruised,” a project initially attached to Nick Cassavetes, it’s never apparent what Berry finds fascinating about MMA. We certainly never learn anything about training, which is reduced here to a “Rocky”-inspired montage. The script tries to position Immaculate as a villain; he books Jackie as a name, meat that can be thrown away for a quick payday. But his motives are so opaque, you’re never quite sure if his machinations are all part of his galaxy-brained mind games or maliciously wrought. Lady Killer (Valentina Shevchenko), her opponent, isn’t introduced until the final quarter of the movie, thereby robbing the final fight of any drama.
Berry, as both an actor and director, burns the candles at both ends, ultimately, leaving both spheres in the dark. She lacks chemistry with everyone: The child never feels like her son (even distantly), her mother never feels like her mother, her love interests are deadwood atop a barely perceptible flame. Berry routinely overacts. As does, with the exception of Atim and a rarely utilized Stephen McKinley Henderson, the rest of the cast. The film’s cinematography by Frank G. DeMarco and Joshua Reis is an orange-tinged dirge, the kind of heavy handed over-serious lighting without any aesthetic pleasures that’s come to dominate modern filmmaking.
The title bout between Jackie and Lady Killer, the film’s very long climax, is rendered for shock and awes. The lively camera dances around the fighters, taking viewers deep into the action. But “Bruised” commits what’s a cardinal sin for any inspirational sports drama: It never establishes what Jackie is fighting for. Possibly her son. Possibly a modicum of self-respect. Maybe for love? We don’t know. They’re all seemingly on the table, and at the same time, not, making redemption more of a distant desire than a palpable goal. Likewise, Berry’s film doesn’t display a clear passion for the subject of MMA, rendering the sport with a generic gaze, nor a measured eye for pruning the copious subplots. “Bruised” barely leaves a mark.
In limited theatrical release today and on Netflix on November 24th.
Halle Berry as Jackie Justice
Adan Canto as Desi
Sheila Atim as Bobbi Buddhakan Berroa
Valentina Shevchenko as Lady Killer
Nikolai Nikolaeff as Igor
Danny Boyd Jr. as Manny Lyons Jr
Stephen McKinley Henderson as Pops
Denny Dillon as Crazy Esther