There are certain movies that you root for to succeed before ever seeing a single frame. For me, Halle Berry’s directorial debut, Bruised, is one of those. While she’s a huge star and even an Oscar winner, I’ve always felt that Hollywood has underserved her, and to have Berry take the reins on a project built just for her, an MMA drama no less, you want it to be good. But hope springs eternal, and while Berry gives a committed physical performance in this grueling film, the heavy-handed nature and sports movie cliches rain down upon you like losing a 12-rounder to the heavyweight champion.
Berry plays former MMA star Jackie Justice, who left the sports in disgrace when she ran from the octagon during a title fight she was losing badly. Left to struggle with a crappy custodial job, an abusive manager (Adan Canto), and a dismissive mother (Adriane Lenox), Jackie faces an uphill climb. Things only get worse when her estranged 6-year-old son Manny (Danny Boyd Jr.) is left on her doorstep.
But it’s when Jackie beats the snot out of the underground champ that she draws the attention of shady promoter Immaculate (Netflix fave Shamier Anderson), who promises to get her back in the big leagues if she’ll come fight for him. But it won’t be easy; breaking her habits and getting into fighting shape would be hard enough if she didn’t also have to deal with being a mother, something she ran away from in the first place. When Immaculate gets Jackie a big-money fight against the current champion Lady Killer (real-life fighter Valentina “Bullet” Shevchenko), the smart bet is that she’ll crumble under the pressure.
What unfolds is a sports drama that hits all of the expected notes, and the one romantic swerve is telegraphed like a looping left hook. Jackie, who shows flashes of her old self when she’s pissed off, is pushed to her limit by soulful trainer Buddhakan (Sheila Atim), who becomes the closest thing she’s had to a friend in years. But emotional beats are delivered through loud, shouting matches and acts of physical abuse. There is very little real depth to be found and less connection that spurs Jackie’s personal growth. Especially shallow is Jackie’s relationship to her son, who refuses to speak after witnessing a violent event. We get it; she’s not mother material and learning to be a parent is as much of a slugfest as anything she’ll face in the octagon. Bruised repeatedly pounds this idea into our heads with so much melodrama it becomes numbing real quick.
But let me be clear that Berry is not without talent. The training scenes are appropriately gritty, with cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco offering a style that’s closer to a UFC reality show. Berry is particularly great in these scenes, as well, and is able to bring her Oscar-winning prowess to an underdog like she’s never been able to do before. The domestic scenes are less impressive and break of Berry trying to capture the shadowy gloom of Monster’s Ball or, even worse, Precious. The overwhelming self-seriousness matches those depressing films, as well, grinding Bruised to a standstill. Characters flit in and out of Jackie’s life when plot demands, rather than feeling organic. The worst example is what happens to Buddhakan, who up to a certain point had been the one positive driver of Jackie’s growth. Ultimately, she’s reduced to a romantic subplot that serves to add some last-second mystery to Jackie’s final bout but makes no sense under even the slightest scrutiny.
Interestingly, Bruised was originally a film to be directed by Nick Cassavetes with Blake Lively in the starring role. When that fell apart, Berry stepped in and tweaked the story to make it about a single black mother. I’m not sure it would’ve made much of a difference except in my own personal expectations, which have been forced to tap out from disappointment.
Bruised is available now on Netflix and select theaters.