Bruised premieres on Wednesday, Nov. 24 on Netflix.
Oscar winner Halle Berry makes her feature film directorial debut with Bruised, a decently spun redemption tale about an MMA fighter’s journey back to the Octagon years after suffering a brutal loss in a wickedly one-sided fight. Bruised doesn’t exactly steer clear of genre clichés or sappy sports story elements, but Berry’s directing, and performance as the lead, helps it hit a little bit harder.
Training montages, demons to overcome, a young kid worth fighting for — Bruised spares no expense in the tropes department when it comes to the underdog story of one Jackie Justice, a hardscrabble former UFC grappler whose life is left a mess after her boyfriend/manager ruins her 10-and-0 record by putting her in a fight she’s not prepared for. Years later, Jackie’s an alcoholic mess and working as a housekeeper, still under the thumb of her sh***y boyfriend.
Despite some of the paint-by-numbers elements, Berry works hard to bring an authenticity to Bruised, getting down and dirty in the cage and physically digging in as a performer to present us with character to root for, one who we want to see succeed as a fighter and a mother.
Perhaps a more traditional way this story could have gone would be for Berry to play someone who mentors and trains a new fighter, but Bruised wonderfully takes Berry’s Jackie, an aging warrior who some might say blew her shot, and pushes her as a marvel who still has toxicity to expel from her life and, in doing so, has a worthy story to tell.
One of the more surprising parts of Bruised — which is even more pleasing when one considers how these moments usually play out in movies that build up to a final battle — is Jackie’s third-act return to the cage and her big showdown with dominant lightweight champion Lady Killer (played by MMA fighter Valentina Shevchenko). The film slowly loads itself up with new people in Jackie’s life who you might expect to see cheer her on, or be there for her as motivation during a crisis of faith, but she goes it alone. And it’s here that Bruised’s message sticks its landing the best. This is Jackie’s crucible. Win or lose, she’ll be in that ring by herself.
The arrival of Jackie’s 6-year-old son, Manny (Danny Boyd Jr.), and a spark of interest from a local promoter, simultaneously forces, and compels, Jackie to set her life straight. Dispelling the darkness that presently pummels her while also confronting her painful past, Berry’s Jackie is a gritty survivor whose obstacles, at times, feel insurmountable. There was definitely more to mine here with Manny, since the child re-enters Jackie’s life as a character who doesn’t speak, leaving him feeling like a bit of a blank slate/plot device at times, but Berry knows how to play off it, often having Jackie see Manny as a reflection of her own traumas.
Bruised isn’t flashy, per se, but it still exudes glamour as a notably unglamorous project. Berry gives a riveting performance at times, unleashing blood, sweat, and tears as part of Jackie’s courageous comeback. Story-wise though, there’s nothing enticingly fresh here. The performances are strong — particularly Berry and Sheila Atim, who plays Jackie’s trainer, Buddhakan — and the film is a promising start for Berry’s budding directing career, but Jackie’s battle back from the brink only ever reaches medium levels of drama.
Netflix Spotlight: November 2021