- Director: Halle Berry
- Screenwriters: Michelle Rosenfarb
- Starring: Halle Berry, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Adan Canto, Danny Boyd Jr., Sheila Atim, Adriane Lenox
Bruised is a film that’s filled with so many sports clichés that it may as well be called “The Invincible Hoosiers Rocky Miracle.” Some familiarity is to be expected within such a well-worn genre, but the film barely brings enough to the table to justify its existence. That’s not to say that the film is a total slog; Halle Berry’s directorial debut is pretty to look at and includes some likeable performances. But you’ve seen this film before, in one form or another, and that is what ultimately holds back its potential.
Berry was initially set to star as Jackie Justice, an MMA fighter who suddenly left the sport after a traumatic fight, but she decided to direct after the production lost its first choice. Berry’s direction provides to an interesting level of subtext to the film, just as when Clint Eastwood directs himself in his films. Early on, we’re told that Jackie used to be one of the great women in the UFC, but in the current day, she expresses little interest in returning to the Octagon. She lives with her abusive boyfriend Desi (Adan Canto), sneaks shots of alcohol into empty Windex bottles* and cleans houses for a living.
*Why she does this is never explained; it’s not like her boyfriend is much of a saint himself. Her “alcoholism” seems to just be shorthand for how far she’s fallen.
Before long, her mother (Adriane Lenox) drops Jackie’s forgotten son Manny (Danny Boyd, Jr.) on her front door, clumsily revealing that his father (who had been taking care of him previously) has been murdered. It seems that Jackie didn’t feel ready to raise a child when Manny was born, so she gave him up to be raised by someone else. Berry plays Jackie’s shock and uncertainty nicely, but Michelle Rosenfarb’s script barely explores what would drive a mother to give up her own son. The amount of backstory that’s presented – backstory that could have made for a thoughtful film! – with ever-clunky exposition throughout Bruised is exhausting. Manny’s trauma of seeing his own father’s murder leaves him unable to speak throughout the film. I’m not against silent performances, and Boyd gives a fine performance, but Manny ultimately feels like less of a character and more like a way to soften Jackie.
Perhaps out of desperation, perhaps as an excuse to avoid her parenting responsibilities, perhaps because she realizes it’s the one thing she excels at, Jackie begins training again. The Burgess Meredith-adjacent role in Bruised belongs to Bobbi (Sheila Atim), who is introduced as deep in meditation. Don’t worry about how Bobbi can be so peaceful in such a brutal sport; the film doesn’t bother exploring that either. And though she espouses the rigidity of their training schedule, she lets Jackie’s tardiness slide without much admonishment. Despite these character inconsistencies, Atim is one of the bright spots of the film. She brings a warmth and understanding to Bobbi in an otherwise cold film, and her scenes where she interacts with Manny are surprisingly lovely.
It’s a credit to Berry as a director that, despite the film’s punishingly long runtime, it rarely feels boring. Berry is actually in the Octagon, punching and kicking away at her opponents. And the fight scenes feel just as ruthless as the real thing, filmed energetically without a lot of unnecessary flair. What we’re left with, then, is a hollow spectacle: a handful of decently choreographed fights featuring a character that doesn’t feel unique enough. Instead, she’s a character that’s barely explored. When we finally do learn why Jackie tapped out of that fateful fight, it’s shrugged off, and nobody tries to unpack what this means for her. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but if you want to see an MMA-centric sports movie that works better than Bruised, try the Happy Madison-Kevin James vehicle Here Comes the Boom instead.
Bruised premieres on Netflix on November 24.