Snarling under a sweaty beanie and a curtain of hair, tears streaking her makeup, Halle Berry wants us to know that she’s taking this all very seriously. Directing herself in a hard-hitting but heavy-handed sports drama, Berry does everything she can to make sure Bruised lands with the kind of heft she’s been missing from pretty much every film since Monster’s Ball. Clearly pouring everything she has into the role, it’s a shame to see such a passionate performance knocked down by so many lazily swung gut punches.
Within the first 10 minutes we see former MMA star Jackie Justice (Berry) dragged through the mill. In one day, she loses her job as a cleaner, breaks her face in an underground fight club, gets raped by her abusive manager (Adan Canto) and ends up sobbing on the bathroom floor, spraying cheap booze in her mouth from a bottle of bleach. When her abandoned six-year-old son Manny (Danny Boyd Jr.) shows up on her doorstep, it almost feels like misery porn parody. When Manny turns out to be mute, just waiting for that one magic moment to say his first words, it feels like one kitchen sink too many.
Starting from the bottom and punching her way back to the top, Jackie agrees to climb back in the cage for an upcoming unlicensed prize fight. Training with tough nut Bobbi Buddhakan Berroa (The Underground Railroad‘s Sheila Atim) and kindly old coach Pops (Dune‘s Stephen McKinley), Jackie finds herself only a couple of musical montages away from being able to prove herself again – all the while balancing a horrendous home life filled with jealous partners, alcohol abuse and a little mute kid in sore need of a bit of stability.
When Jackie and Bobbi start sleeping together, Berry manages to find the one fight-movie cliché that hasn’t been milked to death already (fair enough, Rocky never got it on with his trainer…), but a late-act LGBTQ+ twist is hardly enough of a twist to save Bruised from feeling like it’s deep in debt to every other sports film ever made. What might be enough, though, is Berry’s performance – wringing every last drop of physical and emotional pain from a brutal, courageous, exceptionally demanding role that stands as one of her best. Berry deserves huge credit here for hand-making her own comeback instead of waiting for Hollywood to do it for her, but she’s always at the mercy of a corny script that keeps all her hard work from meaning much.
Getting right into the blood and sweat of the fight scenes, and getting even deeper into the family drama out of the ring, Berry’s directorial debut proves that she’s got a good eye, even if it isn’t an especially original one. At its best when it isn’t trying so hard – in subtler scenes with Manny, and in the more honest moments of Jackie and Bobbi’s relationship – Bruised lands far too heavily to feel like the kind of film Berry hoped it would be. It stands up well enough as another great showcase of a fine actor and a promising new director in one, but as an MMA beat ’em up with yet another troubled underdog story to spin, it never really makes it off the canvas.
- Director: Halle Berry
- Starring: Halle Berry, Sheila Atim, Danny Boyd Jr.
- Release date: November 24 (Netflix)