Halle Berry’s directorial debut fails to satisfy sports movie thrills or push the subgenre anywhere new.
The best sports movies uplift and invigorate. They often take their formulaic structures to greater heights than what seems achievable. They transcend the films that they’re modeled after, pushing forward different definitions of winners and losers. The classics, Rocky, Hoosiers, A League of Their Own, offer the catharsis that sports can bring; they unite an audience in rapturous applause, even if the underdog doesn’t win the title fight. Unfortunately, Halle Berry’s directorial debut, Bruised, neither elevates nor shifts this formula, resigned to a middling existence likely to get lost among the endless titles shuffling through Netflix.
Berry stars as Jackie “Pretty Bull” Justice, a past-her-prime MMA fighter looking to mount a comeback. After climbing out of the ring during her final fight, she left the UFC in shame. She was pushed into a tough matchup by her manager/boyfriend, Desi (Adan Canto). It was a decision several other characters imply Desi should’ve known better than to make.
Four years later, living in a dark, wet, sepia-toned world, she’s sneaking whiskey out of cleaning bottles, fighting in unsanctioned basement fights against bigger opponents like a woman named Werewolf. The arrival of her six-year-old son, Manny (a mute, cute Danny Boyd Jr.), after his father was shot and killed, forces Justice into roles long since abandoned.
Berry’s film, clocking in at a felt 132 minutes, doesn’t do much to change what might happen next. Justice cannot juggle her roles as mother, fighter, or title contender, bouncing around homes with Manny, going from her abusive boyfriend to her pill-popping, wig-selling mother (Adriane Lenox). Her demons spring from all these places. Unfortunately, however, the film doesn’t have time to deal with each of them separately.
Her boyfriend vanishes from the film following a physical argument. The father of her child, her ex, never gets a proper burial or even a conversation acknowledging his role in her life. Her lack of income comes up before a quick discard for an underbaked and undeserved romantic storyline. Justice’s marred childhood comes as a passing remark, investigated for a brief moment before the film trudges forward. Several subplots swirl around Justice. They serve as purposeless asides, drawing a half-picture of a woman that deserves a deeper look. After all, there’s a title fight on the horizon.
[Halle Berry is] suffocated by the width of the writing, jumping from emotion to emotion without the time to feel each one deeply.
Justice’s trainers, Buddhakan (Sheila Atim) and Pops (Stephen McKinley Henderson), give her a chance at redemption. Specifically, sports movie redemption. By the logic of Bruised, if she can last five rounds with the champ, she will be able to move forward with the inner (and outer) scars that currently plague her life.
So she starts training the day after her underground fight with Werewolf, going through several training montages. Unfortunately, none of them offer the usual transformations of Bruised’s predecessors. And yet, without much lead-up, the fight arrives. Along with it comes $20,000 on the line if she can pull out a victory.
The ensemble cast, especially Atim and Henderson, works to bring a more-layered interpretation of the script by Michelle Rosenfarb. Berry brings energy and physicality to her performance, clearly putting in the effort to learn MMA basics. Too much trauma and too many title fights constrain Berry’s chance to breathe within the role. She’s suffocated by the width of the writing, jumping from emotion to emotion without the time to feel each one deeply.
The Oscar-winner does what she can with the limited emotional role, pushing herself to another physical plane. Nonetheless, the script deflates her performance by refusing to portray her as more than just a fighter looking for redemption.
Behind the camera, Berry chooses to examine the physical pain inflicted by and upon Justice. Her trauma catalyzes her rage. It fuels her fighting style, with its focus on headlocks, arm locks, leg locks, and even the occasional heel lock. But those words only come to us through announcers, as Berry doesn’t have time to teach the audience about the ins and outs of MMA, which might have served as a more engaging use of the runtime. She’s too busy attempting to balance flashpan storylines, most of which are introduced only to be abandoned.
By the time the fight ends, one can only hope Bruised will end soon after. Without depth, the film becomes a dull, predictable, unearned piece of sports melodrama, unwilling to break out of its parameters. Even an instrumental version of “Hallelujah” can’t salvage these barren moments littering an otherwise predictable sports drama.
Bruised is dusting its knuckles now on Netflix.