The sports film, in general, is fairly formulaic irrespective of gender. It’s one of the more reliable genres, able to entertain even if the beats are standard operating procedure. When it comes to sports films featuring women, there are slight distinctions, namely in what the sport is and what role men play within it. For Halle Berry, making her directorial debut with the MMA film “Bruised,” she wanted to make the movie female-heavy, both in front of and behind the camera, and it creates pockets of distinction in which it stands out from the sports features that have come before it.
Jackie Justice (Berry) was once a top MMA fighter for the UFC. But when she jumped out of a cage during a match, the disgrace ruined her career. Four years later, Jackie is moving from job to job with little to show for it outside of an abusive boyfriend/manager, Desi (Adan Canto), who continues to push her into fighting. When Jackie’s young son, Manny (Danny Boyd, Jr.), shows up on her doorstep after the death of his father, the pair must form an unlikely alliance in order to survive.
During a post-screening Q&A, Berry got emotional in discussing her journey to bring this movie to the screen. It’s a story initially written about a white, Irish Catholic woman, and it was through working with screenwriter Michelle Rosenfarb that Berry not only transitioned the character into who she is now, but eventually was talked into directing.
Similar to another disgraced fighter movie seeking redemption, Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler,” “Bruised” sees Jackie not only strive for success in the ring, but also in her personal life. Jackie has been the victim of numerous traumas and has a contentious relationship with her mother, Angel (Adriane Lenox), so Manny’s arrival forces Jackie to confront what it means to be a mother. There’s always a slight shift when we see stories about mothers learning to mother, and while Jackie never appears to regret her decision to give Manny up to live with his father, the movie does double down on the melodrama in their scenes. Manny has apparently witnessed his own father’s murder, but is subjected to even more abuse from Desi.
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These scenes would probably make “Bruised” very maudlin, but Berry and young Boyd are fantastic together. Berry often steps back and allows him to shine, the camera lingering on Boyd’s expressive face as he processes what he’s seeing. There’s a curiosity and inquisitiveness to his performance that is intensified by the fact that he doesn’t speak for nearly the entire film. One scene finds Manny hearing a snippet of “Just the Two of Us,” a song he and his father played together, and we watch him unleash all the grief and sadness he’s been holding in.
It’s no surprise that Berry shows a flair for directing, especially after 30 years of being in the film industry. With cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco, Berry showcases a compelling tenacity, both in her performance and the way the camera captures the fights. The final cage match is especially well-filmed, with the camera highlighting the fight in a way that the audience sees everything, but especially honing in on the balletic movements of the characters.
Like any good fight film, the fight choreography here is brutal. Though the movie opens with Jackie’s jump from the cage, it’s obvious there’s a lot of trauma and anger in her waiting to be unleashed. In the first moments of the film, Desi takes her to an underground fight ring where she is goaded into fighting a massive female fighter. Jackie goes off on her, headbutting the woman’s face into hamburger with the camera capturing everything.
But part of Jackie’s growing up involves not only letting go of her anger and past, but understanding the mechanics of fighting better. Much is made about the fact that Jackie is middle-aged and allegedly too old to fight. With her trainer Buddhakan (Sheila Atim), the pair learn how to create a center of calm in which Jackie can control herself and the fight. Several scenes in the final match are beautiful to see, especially as Berry shows the nimble grace that UFC fighters have to utilize to bring someone to the ground.
Berry and Canto, as Desi, have absolutely zero chemistry, probably because, with Desi’s massive “Boricua” tattoo on his chest and strong New York accent, the character is just so garishly over-the-top as to prohibit that. (His scenes saw me flashing back to Max Beesley in “Glitter.”) Thankfully, Sheila Atim’s Buddhakan arrives, immediately exhibiting palpable chemistry with Berry. Atim’s trainer is one that prioritizes mental strength alongside physical toughness; she understands that it isn’t enough to be strong if your mind feels damaged. Every scene with her is magnetic.
“Bruised” isn’t breaking any new ground from a narrative standpoint, but it does show the strength of Halle Berry as a director, boasting a powder keg of dominating performances within a simplistic story. Sheila Atim and Danny Boyd Jr. are fantastic and threaten to run away with the entire production.
“Bruised” is available to stream on Netflix November 24.
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