Halle Berry makes her directorial debut with Bruised, a film that is half comeback-story sports drama, half family drama, and all cliché. Berry also stars in Bruised, as disgraced MMA fighter Jackie Justice, whose career is ended after she climbs out of the octagonal cage during a bout she is losing. The opening of the film depicts this event in hazy semi-blackness set to Jackie’s struggling breathing, and it is easily one of the most interesting and inventive sequences in the film. As a director, Berry acquits herself well, showing a particular flair for capturing action, and more of a knack for capturing performance than eliciting it from her actors. Most of the performances in Bruised aren’t notable, and Berry herself borders on histrionic, but Stephen McKinley Henderson is reliable as ever as a trainer, and Sheila Atim is as bracing here as she is in The Underground Railroad. Young actor Danny Boyd, Jr., also does credibly as Jackie’s nearly mute estranged son.
Years after her UFC career ended, Jackie is scraping by cleaning houses and living with Desi (Adan Canto), her boyfriend-cum-manager. Their relationship is Not Good, and one might think Jackie is punishing herself for some as yet unrevealed misdeed, but Bruised, written by Michelle Rosenfarb, never explores why Jackie climbed out of the ring in the opening scene, nor does she seem particularly burdened by her past decision to give up her son, letting his father raise him. For a film that’s over two hours long, Jackie remains an opaque character, going through the motions as dictated by genre conventions. Does she return the to the ring (octagon, whatever)? Yes! Does she bond with her son? Of course!
Her comeback fight, in fact, dominates act three. It’s a fairly good-looking piece of action, though Berry succumbs to the current trend for sludgy, brown-gray cinematography (lensed by both Frank G. DeMarco and Joshua Reis), but she does get the angles right in a way that makes the fight itself look both brutal and balletic, with a focus on the power and grace of some of the moves. Still, there is plenty of bone-crunching punches and kicks, and if MMA is not your thing, Bruised can be kind of hard to watch. Also affecting that final fight is the fact that Jackie’s opponent, Lady Killer (professional MMA fighter Valentina Shevchenko), isn’t introduced until late, which undercuts some of the drama of their meeting. Despite the catchy name, Lady Killer is no Apollo Creed.
As for the family drama side of things, Bruised is just as cliché, and also sort of hard to watch (content warning for child abuse). Bruised doesn’t offer anything new or even interesting as either a sports or family drama. Berry is dedicated in her performance, especially with the fight scenes, but this is not her best acting. I guess MMA fans may like it, but it’s only halfway a film about an MMA fighter making a comeback, you’re also going to have to sit through the sad but hackneyed family drama bits. And if you want the family drama bits, you still have to deal with the brutal fight scenes. And even if you do want to see either of things, there are better films that push the same buttons (the Creed films, for instance). For the Halle Berry fans, Bruised is a technically impressive start to her directing career—muddy look aside—but she can’t overcome the script’s weaknesses. I just don’t know who this movie is for.
Bruised is streaming on Netflix from November 24.
Attached - Halle making promotional rounds in New York earlier this week.