Bruised (2021)

Fight movies are a dime a dozen in Hollywood, so to find a new way, a new approach to the genre is difficult and rare. Which makes it surprising that Oscar-winning actress Halle Berry would choose one to make her directorial debut with. She must have felt she had something unique to say, and, for the most part, she does come at the traditional fight movie from a new angle, but, unfortunately, the rest of it is still disappointingly standard.

Bruised is written by Michelle Rosenfarb and directed by Berry, who also stars as Jackie Justice, a former Mixed Martial Arts champion who was somehow disgraced at the end of her career, and is now cleaning toilets and living with her abusive boyfriend/manager, played by Adan Canto. Per standard genre rules, Jackie may be out of the ring—or octagon—but she still has the fire inside, so, when a promoter (Shamier Anderson) approaches her with a chance at a title fight with the current world champion, she decides to go for it. Because, of course she does. But Jackie has more to contend with than just preparing for her bout, as her estranged mother (Adriane Lenox) shows up on her doorstep with a six-year-old boy in tow (Danny Boyd, Jr.), Jackie’s son who had been living with his father, who has been suddenly killed, leaving the boy now in Jackie’s custody. Jackie has no clue how to be a mother and doesn’t know what to do with this boy, who is so traumatized by his father’s sudden death that he doesn’t speak and barely eats. Jackie must find a way to be a mother to her son, while at the same time prepare for the biggest fight of her life, one that might save her life or might just put her down for good.

Rosenfarb’s script hits every expected milepost, the downcast former champion who must dig deep to find that inner strength to get back in the ring, the ruthless promoter who only sees dollar signs, the abusive boyfriend, the chance for redemption, and, of course, the requisite training sequence, in which Berry can show off all the hard work she put into preparing for this role. And impressive it is, as Berry does do well to convince us that she is an MMA fighter. There is no denying Berry’s commitment to this role, and the fact that she’s such a gifted actress does create more than a semblance of believability here. She disappears into the role and delivers a strong performance as a woman who is lost, humiliated by her past and unsure of her future. Even though the child showing up on her doorstep feels manipulative, especially considering the fact that this is supposed to trigger her mothering instincts, Berry manages to mostly avoid the pitfalls of melodrama.

Unfortunately, the film stumbles at another familiar genre milepost, the grizzled trainer. While we are used to the bitter old white man in this role, the one with the tough love, sarcasm, quips and inspirational speeches, in Bruised the part is transformed into a Zen-practicing, soft-spoken female trainer named Bobbi, played by Sheila Atim, whose approach to training Jackie is a decidedly more feminine one, yet still quite effective. In fact, Bobbi is the most dynamic and interesting character in the film, an absolutely welcome breath of fresh air, as Atim plays her with a distant warmth, a curious mysteriousness and a practical efficacy that complements Jackie’s bull-in-a-China-shop approach to life. Sadly, though, Rosenfarb chooses to go down a disappointing path and throws in a romantic relationship between Bobbi and Jackie that not only feels insulting, disingenuous and pandering, but needless. The audience is already invested in Jackie and her journey, so this unnecessary detour into melodrama not only changes the dynamic between the characters, but takes away Bobbi’s mysterious allure and turns her into a needy lover, playing right into cliché and stereotypes with disappointing speed.

Despite this needless speedbump, the damage isn’t catastrophic, as Bruised does eventually find its way to the big, climactic fight scene, which occupies the last twenty minutes of the film. Berry enlists real life champion Valentina Shevchenko, who is currently the UFC Women’s Flyweight Champion, to play Jackie’s opponent in the final bout, and Berry does well to film the fight, getting the audience up in there with the action. For those of us not familiar with the sport, Berry cuts regularly to the sideline announcers who help the unfamiliar follow the action and understand when Jackie is in trouble or is doing well. And this is where Bruised succeeds the most. Unlike boxing, where the winner is most often decided when the opponent is literally knocked out and lying on the floor, which is very dramatic and made for Hollywood, mixed martial arts is a more subtle competition, with successes counted in points instead of blows. While this may not seem ideal for a Hollywood ending, it does work exceedingly well with the story Rosenfarb and Berry are telling, which is a more subtle, dare I say more feminine story. Successes in life are rarely counted by the knockouts, but much more often by the little victories, and it is in this philosophy that Bruised wins, albeit by a split decision.

Review originally posted on AwardsWatch.