Even since big-name actors such as Robert Redford or Clint Eastwood took their shot at sitting in the director’s chair, numerous others have followed suit with varying degrees of success. For every film a la Ryan Gosling’s “Lost River” that most people would sooner or rather forget about (if they haven’t done so already), there’s a breakout smash such as Olivia Wilde’s “Booksmart.” The prospects seem rather exciting when you hear that a talented actor like Halle Berry will be making their debut with a “female-heavy” mixed martial arts film. Unfortunately, Halle Berry’s “Bruised” is a grueling hybrid of your weak, everyday Sundance debut and TV sports movie.
Not intending to direct the project upon initial development—which involved Berry reworking the lead character from a young Irish Catholic woman to a middle-aged Black mother—“Bruised” suffers from a lack of narrative verisimilitude on numerous levels. Berry plays Jackie Justice, a former fighter who left the octagon disgraced after leaping from the cage—what went down is presented in a blotchy POV shot, the specific details left unsaid and unseen. Now she’s scrubbing toilets and stuck in an abusive relationship with her manager Desi (Adan Canto), who tossed aside all his male fighters to manage her. After physically assaulting an underage kid and destroying his phone for filming her topless, Jackie loses her job, and problems only get more insurmountable when her estranged son Manny (Danny Boyd Jr.) arrives on her front doorstep.
“Took a bullet to the head” is literally all Jackie’s vain and carnal mother, Angel (Adriane Lenox), tells Jackie and the audience about the father of her son’s fate. So scarred from his traumatic upbringing, Manny refuses to speak, peeing his pants in public after Jackie fails to realize him tugging at her clothes is a sign he needs to find a bathroom.
When Desi brings his prized fighter girlfriend to a dodgy basement fight ring, Jackie Justice returns after headbutting the bloody bejesus out of the underground champ. “Fight in my league, and I’ll get you back in the UFC,” a league owner named Immaculate (an excellent and underused, Shamier Anderson) tells her after brutally throwing down. She’s soon offered a big payday title match against the current champ, Lady Killer (MMA fighter Valentina “Bullet” Shevchenko), but obviously needs to get back in shape first. Hooking up with trainers Buddhakan and Pops (Sheila Atim, Stephen McKinley Henderson), Jackie’s heart might be on fire, but the challenges of caring for Manny balanced against personal dignity weigh heavy on it as well.
In addition to having a melodramatically telegraphed plot, Berry’s stylistic choices create a number of competing aesthetics. The clarity of the image shifts from soft, realist, and handheld in under-lit home scenes to more sharply high contrast in the outdoor daylight—overly sheen deep blacks which look unnatural juxtaposed against a blinding and ever-present, ice rink sky shot, often from steep and sometimes weirdly angular camera placements. During the gym scenes and domestic bouts, the film employs a more verité look, even veering into Darren Aronofsky-esque behind the back sporadically—one running scene ultimately resulting in a rudimentary camera movement/image make-up mismatch.
Random jump cuts and manipulative music cues don’t help either. Berry’s debut very much feels like one from an artist who feels the need to expressively prove themselves, only they can’t settle on what their vision is. They’ve been saddled with a Lifetime original movie/Sundance script lab mash-up as a blueprint to explore complex racial issues that never dive beyond the surface.
Admirably attempting to create several realistic poverty-stricken characters, almost all of them drop in and out of Jackie’s life to suit dramatic impact, resulting in a film with an easy-to-see finish line that keeps going off-road on excessive misery porn detours. There are physical family conflicts and one extreme, solitary confrontation about (possibly underage) rape and matriarchal protection that comes out of nowhere, is never mentioned again, nor resolved by the end of the movie. And, to veer into minor spoiler territory, Buddhakan’s confident characterization solely ends up serving an insolent, and undesired romantic swerve towards the climax, one that can not only be described as queer-baiting and is later conceded to only have happened out of rigorous necessity (it’s so abhorrently lachrymose, audible laughter-filled parts of the theater).
Without mincing words, the climactic fight’s presentation looks and feels close to film school level on a production level—a black hole background, possibly intended to highlight choreography and composition, only makes it ever so evident that there’s no crowd watching this seemingly enormous title bout. It’s abundantly clear that the announcers and sports media footage were not shot or recorded by professionals in their respected fields. The few strengths there are, like the “ground and pound” choreography, are undone by poor editing and coverage.
Berry’s drama feels obligatory and heavy for the sake of being heavy. There’s a bathroom breakdown scene, screeches drowning out the audio, and it’s plainly not too far off from a “Walk Hard” smash the sink moment in execution. The movie has a last-minute “Rocky” montage which plays entirely as mere genre stipulation, making one wonder if Berry thought she had to conform to formula even within a particularly dark setting. Jackie’s damaged interior brings out rabid fighting instincts, unleashing them on the world at sometimes the worst possible moments. Still, aside from this significant motherly flaw, “Bruised” doesn’t do anything unique to define her as a damaged fighter the way films such as “Girlfight” or “Million Dollar Baby” manage to with their protagonists. It doesn’t help that it’s two different movies in one, both of which you’ve seen better versions of. [C-/D+]