Halle Berry, who won an Oscar two decades ago for Monster’s Ball (a landmark win — the first ever for a Black actress in a leading role), has had a mixed bag of acting credits since then. The chief virtue of Bruised, her directorial debut, is that it shows her acting strength is undiminished. But while viewers will be impressed by Berry’s performance, other elements of the film are problematic. Arriving after a lengthy delay in its release because of the pandemic, the drama will follow its world premiere at AFI Fest with a brief theatrical run before its streaming bow on Netflix.
The script by Michelle Rosenfarb stitches together a few too many stock storylines. Berry plays Jackie Justice, who once had a career as a fighter on the MMA (mixed martial arts) circuit. She’s taken to drink and is locked in an abusive relationship with her former manager (Adan Canto). Just as Jackie is contemplating a return to the ring, her mother turns up with the 6-year-old son Jackie abandoned shortly after he was born. As a result of his troubled past, the boy doesn’t speak. So there’s a heart-tugging family drama mixed in with the sports movie cliches, not to mention a lesbian love affair added to juice up a melodrama that doesn’t need quite so many plot threads.
Not a knockout.
The original screenplay centered on a 21-year-old white woman. When Berry expressed interest in the project, screenwriter Michelle Rosenfarb was willing to rework the material to fit a protagonist who’s an older Black woman. As Jackie, Berry holds the screen in close-up (too many close-ups, as it happens) and refuses to surrender to sentimentality as she exposes Jackie’s angry, self-destructive tendencies. The opening scene, in which Jackie is working as a maid and nanny, succinctly demonstrates her explosive temper. She declares that she’s ended her career as a fighter. But as soon as she visits a local boxing ring, we know that’s not a decision she’ll stick to for long.
The story of Jackie’s return to the fight game would probably be enough to hold the picture together. On top of that, the narrative thread involving her damaged young son adds dollops of melodrama. This stock tale of a parent forced to take responsibility for the child they abandoned years earlier has been recycled almost as many times as the fight saga, and it would take more skill than either Berry or Rosenfarb possesses to freshen it. One of the best of these movies is a forgotten 2008 indie drama called Trucker, which featured a superb performance by Michelle Monaghan as the absent mother. In all these films, though, whether the central derelict character is a mother or a father, there’s never much doubt as to how the story will work out.
As if this weren’t enough, Jackie develops an increasingly close bond with her tough-as-nails trainer (British actress Sheila Atim), and she has to find a way to come to terms with her own mother (Adriane Lenox), who apparently paid no attention when Jackie was raped and abused by the mother’s boyfriends during Jackie’s childhood. Although that history no doubt explains Jackie’s involvement with her abusive manager, the film would have had to devote more time to the backstory to make it seem much more than a modish nod to the #MeToo movement. And since it already runs over two hours, the film can’t really encompass any additional lengthy subplots.
As a director, Berry’s strengths lie in her attention to the performances. This is often a gift that actor-directors bring to their movies. Atim makes the trainer ruthless when necessary and tender when her relationship with Jackie blossoms. As Jackie’s son, young Danny Boyd Jr. speaks eloquently without a word of dialogue. The marvelous Stephen McKinley Henderson (also seen this fall in Dune) doesn’t have enough to do until the film moves toward the climactic fight scene between Jackie and the ferocious Lady Killer (real UFC champion Valentina Shevchenko).
The fight scenes are skillfully choreographed, but in other respects Berry’s direction is shaky. She and cinematographers Frank G. DeMarco and Joshua Reis rely on too much handheld camerawork and an excessive use of close-ups. Berry often fails to establish the locations as a result of the ever-swirling camera. And although certain passages have energy, the film definitely could have used a tighter hand in the final edit. On the other hand, the score by Aska Matsumiya adds a fresh, jangly energy to the picture.
Despite the ambition of her directorial debut and some skillful scenes, Bruised probably won’t be remembered for much beyond reminding audiences of Berry’s enduring strength in front of the camera.