Gritty yet utterly fantastical, Halle Berry’s directorial debut Bruised is an emancipation tale about a character who feels most at home inside cages. Literally; Jackie Justice used to be an MMA fighter with a promising career ahead of her, but is now broke and in a toxic relationship.
When the six-year-old son that she gave up for adoption as a baby lands at her doorstep unannounced, Jackie is forced to confront the disarray that her life is in, and make an attempt to bring it back on track. Because Bruised is a sports movie, any reasonably seasoned viewer can make an informed guess about how it’ll end. The challenge, as always, lies in making Jackie’s journey compelling.
But unfortunately for us all, Berry has saddled (herself) with a screenplay that simply refuses to take risks. No joke, but its most defiant swing against stereotypes is a scene in which Jackie takes a poop. The scene could’ve been set virtually anywhere else, but the choice to set it inside a toilet is endlessly fascinating, because as we all know, characters in movies don’t go number two.
Nor do they continue chasing a person who is walking out of a house in a huff beyond a certain point; they always stop at the door and call out to them, as if they’ve been blocked by an invisible force field. Jackie storms off like this on two occasions in Bruised, but neither her estranged mother nor her abusive boyfriend (who’ve both contributed equally to breaking her spirit) have the ability to break this cliché.
Bruised isn’t even the best MMA movie out there; that honour must go to Gavin O’Connor’s Warrior, starring Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy. But even though it’s set in a world that Hollywood hasn’t quite understood—they make 10 boxing movies every year, but none about the UFC—Bruised doesn’t really set itself apart. Jackie might as well have been a chess player like Beth Harmon, or a gambler like The Card Counter’s William Tell.
Part of the reason for this is that Berry is confused about what movie she wants to make. The balance between the personal and the professional that Darren Aronofsky achieved so well in The Wrestler is mostly missing here. Instead, Michelle Rosenfarb’s by-the-numbers script shortchanges both aspects of Jackie’s story. Her relationship with her son unfolds tenderly, but relies too heavily on jarring plot developments and sudden revelations to feel authentic.
And on the other hand, the final showdown, which, of course, is a fight for redemption and long-overdue respect, isn’t given the build-up that it needed. There’s also the issue of some very important narrative doorways that Berry opens, and entirely forgets to close behind her as she charges towards the third-act fight.
It must be said—and this shouldn’t come as a surprise—that Berry is more skilled as an actor than as a director. Jackie is exactly the sort of inarticulate but deeply passionate character that the Oscar-winner plays so well. A couple of flashes, however, suggest she might fare better as a filmmaker with a different script, and perhaps without the added pressure of having to perform such a demanding role.