Halle Berry brings her all to Bruised, but the film is too familiar thematically to earn the explosive emotional impact it desires.
It feels like Hollywood is always forgetting just how brilliant Halle Berry really is. Despite the fact that she won an Oscar nearly two decades ago – and is still the only Black actress to ever do so – she rarely receives material that matches her titanic talent. And though she’s been a fun addition in blockbuster franchises like Kingsman and John Wick (to say nothing of her supremely iconic turn as Storm in the X-Men series), she hasn’t been in the awards conversation since 2010’s Frankie & Alice. Now, over ten years later, she’s back with what may very well be her best role since the Oscar-winning Monster’s Ball, making her directorial debut as well, aiming not just for additional awards recognition but the chance to be seen as a real artist in the industry. Having taken a role originally intended for a much younger white woman and molded it into the story of a middle-aged Black mother, it’s undeniable that Berry has left her artistic imprint on Bruised, and her fierce passion for this specific part is embedded in every frame. Though the film itself is at times sadly a collection of clichés from sports dramas past, this unique perspective gives it power, as does Berry’s blistering lead performance, with both she – and the protagonist she’s playing, Jackie Justice – showing the world that their time isn’t up yet.
Five years after walking away from her promising MMA career, Jackie Justice can barely hold a simple housekeeping gig without getting into trouble, constantly earning the ire of her abusive boyfriend/“manager” Desi (Adan Canto, of X-Men: Days of Future Past and 2 Hearts) and leaving her pushing through life without a real purpose, despite knowing she deserves better. However, she receives a real wake up call when her estranged mother Angel (Adriane Lenox, of The Blind Side and The United States vs. Billie Holiday) shows up at her doorstep with the son she dumped in her ex-boyfriend’s lap just six short years ago – a son she’s never known. As Angel explains, with the child’s father having been recently murdered, Manny (Danny Boyd Jr.) – as he’s named – is now Jackie’s responsibility, and it’s high time that she clean up her act so that she can actually take care of him. As the two start to connect as mother and son, Jackie simultaneously accepts an offer to fight the top female MMA fighter at the moment – the terrifying “Lady Killer” (Valentina Shevchenko, in her acting debut) – for league owner Immaculate (Shamier Anderson, of Destroyer and Stowaway), training under the bright Bobbi Buddhakan Berroa (Sheila Atim, of The Underground Railroad) to make her massive comeback.
First-time screenwriter Michelle Rosenfarb clearly has a knack for character, given how well drawn many of the movie’s main players are – from our plucky protagonist Jackie to the bossy but bodacious Buddhakan – but this story overall is one we’ve seen all too many times before, and there’s not much done to really differentiate it from other sports dramas in this subgenre, with similarities to films like Creed, Southpaw, and Million Dollar Baby proving impossible to ignore. Still, what Bruised lacks in structural freshness it makes up for with deep, authentic feeling. One would be remiss not to mention how different a drama like this is when a Black mother is the lead, as new obstacles arise that other sports drama stars haven’t ever had to even consider. Additionally, the movie’s main focus on motherhood gives it a compelling thematic core that raises the stakes for the climactic scuffle, as Jackie isn’t just trying to “reclaim some fame” simply for fame’s sake – she’s doing so to secure a future for her and her son.
Through it all, Berry is never less than tremendous, effectively exhibiting almost every emotion known to man at one point or another during Jackie’s rise to redemption, going from depressed dejection to distinguished dedication (with just a hint of understandable desperation). Furthermore, her physicality in the film’s fight scenes is phenomenal, with her months of training clearly paying off, as she is able to wholly convince us of Jackie’s capabilities in the ring, and she more than earns her status as an MMA star. With that being said though, it’s actually in the scenes she shares with Boyd’s Manny where she shines most of all, demonstrating a raw, honest humanity that helps us care for this character on a deeper level, allowing us to understand her hurt and subsequently root for her personal and professional renewal. The two are stellar scene partners, and though Boyd doesn’t talk for the majority of the movie (as it’s suggested Manny witnessed his father’s murder and has adopted mutisim as a coping strategy), his tender heart is always tangible, and both he and Berry truly bring out the best in one another.
Nevertheless, Bruised does slightly stumble whenever it steps away from this pairing, and, at over two hours long, it stretches out its story significantly, with a lack of propulsive pacing at points. It’s also worth asking if certain subplots – one regarding abuse Jackie endured from her mother’s suitors growing up that is mentioned once and never again, and another centered around a rushed evolution in her relationship with Buddhakan that feels like it could’ve blossomed into something beautiful if it was given the time to breathe – were worth including if they were going to be shortchanged like this, despite wonderful work from Lenox and Atim. Regardless, from a filmmaking standpoint, Bruised is reliably strong, representing a dynamic debut as a director for Berry, with her reverence for grounded realism in particular giving the film a palpable credibility as it depicts the fierce world of MMA fighting. Even if Bruised isn’t the holistic knockout many were hoping it’d be for Berry, there are many excellent elements here or there, not the least of which is Berry’s own captivating central performance, indicating that this acting icon has still got the goods – and if nothing else, Bruised is worth watching to see the star back at the top of her game.
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