Halle Berry fought to get “Bruised” made. The movie, a labor of love (if not necessarily of originality) about an ex-MMA fighter who goes from scrubbing toilets to standing proud for her estranged young son, is all about proving oneself to the world, and so it’s fitting that Berry spent several years whipping the project into existence. Despite making history at the Oscars 20 years ago, Berry has struggled to find the kind of roles that challenge her (to be fair, the “Monster’s Ball” star followed her win with a Razzie for “Catwoman,” and her subsequent dramatic performances have been wildly uneven). So she took matters into her own hands.
With “Bruised,” Berry responded to a script about a 21-year-old white girl and had it rewritten for an indefinitely older woman, then pitched the project to skeptical parties around town before ultimately stepping behind the camera to direct it herself. The result — which debuted as a “work in progress” at the 2020 Toronto Film Festival, was acquired by Netflix and underwent another year’s worth of retooling — is an actor’s showcase to be sure, full of sweaty training montages and angst-ridden scenes where the character wrestles with her demons. But impressive as Berry’s commitment to the role can be, there’s a mirthless predictability to the whole ordeal. This pro forma sports drama, which clearly means so much to its creator, unfolds pretty much exactly as you’d expect, leaning hard on pathos when what it really needs is personality.
Let’s be clear: Halle Berry is a movie star, and as such, she radiates charisma in a way most of her peers only dream of doing. Whether it’s chasing down a kidnapper in wild-eyed mama-bear mode (“Kidnap”) or holding her own opposite a top assassin (“John Wick 3”), Berry is best when she’s playing extraordinarily capable superwomen. It’s a lot less fun watching her snuff out her natural wattage, beating herself up in pursuit of “serious actor” cred — the kind that comes whenever a cosmetics spokesperson sheds the makeup to play a haggard has-been (à la Nicole Kidman in “Destroyer”). Berry goes one step further, looking black and blue for much of “Bruised.”
Her character, Jackie Justice, was once a promising MMA champ, but it’s been four years since she has stepped inside the ring. Her jerk of a boyfriend Desi (Adan Canto) doesn’t seem to care that she’s being sexually harassed in her job as a maid, engineering a way to get Jackie fighting again — by dragging her to a bloody basement brawl — so that he might manage her. Jackie falls for it, but winds up impressing a bigger fish named Immaculate (Shamier Anderson), who invites her to drop by his gym and train with Zen-minded coach Buddhakan (Sheila Atim, the movie’s secret weapon).
For the first couple reels, by-the-numbers “Bruised” seems like it might have been written by robots, from the way Jackie hides scotch in a squirt bottle under the sink to the arrival of her son, Manny (Danny Boyd Jr.), who hasn’t spoken a word since witnessing his father shot to death. Berry clumsily introduces such details as though no one has ever made a film about a washed-up athlete needing to be coaxed back into commission. But it doesn’t take a genius to guess there will come a scene where Jackie takes all the liquor bottles in the house and pours their contents down the drain, nor to predict that Manny won’t remain mute forever.
But right around the 50-minute mark, just as Michelle Rosenfarb’s script churns out its umpteenth cliché (while the adults argue off-screen, Manny inadvertently starts a fire in the kitchen), Berry suddenly breaks through to audiences, as Jackie steps in when Desi threatens to strike her son. “Big protects little,” she explains, and we understand what this character is really fighting for. Sure, the MMA angle gives Berry a chance to stretch her acting abilities, but “Bruised” is basically a family drama, one in which Jackie toughened up because she couldn’t trust men, and will now go to whatever lengths are needed to spare her son the abuse she endured her whole life.
Though Berry looks battered, with swollen eyes and a split lip, for much of the film, the title refers to a deeper kind of damage. Jackie has been carrying around the trauma of both her childhood and her adult relationships for years, and now, by training with Buddhakan, she begins to heal. On the surface, it looks like she’s getting prepared for the big fight — a televised match with reigning champ Lady Killer (UFC pro Valentina Shevchenko) — when in fact, Jackie is evolving as a mother, a daughter and potentially a lover by recognizing that she has to repair herself before she can be suited to any of those roles.
By standard sports movie rules, the final match matters. With no preliminary bouts to tease what’s in store, it’s hard to believe that Jackie could just come out of hibernation like this and pick up where she left off — or that MMA fans would be quite so thrilled to see Lady Killer take on a fighter who’d maybe aged out of serious contention. But the climactic bout is where Berry gets to show what she can do, as actor and as director. Until this point, the low-budget production looks like it was shot on an unsteady iPhone, then fed through a filter designed to make everything appear “gritty” (really, just dark and dreary).
But once Jackie steps into the arena, Berry may as well have disappeared entirely, replaced by a tense, well-trained tangle of instincts and aggression. What follows is meticulously choreographed, as Berry absorbs the blows of real-life powerhouse Shevchenko, returning as good as she gets in a visceral, hard-hitting skirmish that leaves old-school boxing scenes feel positively dainty by comparison. No one expects Berry to reinvent the sports movie, but still she manages to impress on both sides of the camera in the final act. There, in the ring, actor and character alike are reminding themselves — and the world — what they’re capable of.