Runtime: 129 minutes
Director: Halle Berry
Writer: Michelle Rosenfarb
Actors: Halle Berry, Sheila Atim, Adriane Lenox, Adan Canto, Danny Boyd Jr.
By Valerie Kalfrin
Halle Berry has often been a fighter. She leaped from TV shows to feature films after she persuaded director Spike Lee that she had the grit to play a crack addict in 1991’s “Jungle Fever.” As an executive producer on “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge,” she paid for a scene at the film’s ending to help the story’s integrity and its budget.
So it’s understandable that she felt a connection in her to Jackie Justice, the disgraced mixed-martial-arts fighter she plays in “Bruised,” her directing debut. Berry, an Oscar-winner for 2001’s “Monster’s Ball,” channels believable pain as Jackie. (At 55, she also acquits herself in the cage admirably after another character dismisses her as “old” and “full of self-pity.”)
The story’s pacing and Jackie’s character development keep “Bruised” from being a knockout, but the film has such strong performances from Berry and the supporting cast that it’s never down for the count.
Airing on Netflix, which snapped up the film after its showing at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival, “Bruised” opens with Jackie in a scandalous moment for any MMA fighter with a winning record: trying to climb out of the arena.
Four years later, Jackie shuffles about Newark, New Jersey, dodging locals who taunt her about whom she used to be. She cleans houses for a living and sneaks liquor into a spray bottle that she hides under the sink at home with her manager/boyfriend, Desi (Adan Canto, “Second Chance”), who punches the wall one minute and says he loves her the next.
Desi brings Jackie to a no-holds-barred fight one night to watch another woman he plans to sign. But when Jackie gets into the fray and knocks the other fighter senseless, she piques the interest of Immaculate (Shamier Anderson, “Invasion”), a manager who says he can get her back in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the world’s largest MMA promotion company.
Jackie seems uninterested until her mother, Angel (Adriane Lenox, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday”), shows up with Jackie’s son, Manny (Danny Boyd Jr., “Watchmen”). The six-year-old had been living in Miami with his father, a cop who died undercover, and the father’s girlfriend sent him north. For once in your life, Angel says, handle your mess.
Writer Michelle Rosenfarb, in her feature debut, peels away Jackie’s trauma in “Bruised” a bit at a time, showing a woman whose life revolves around violence. “You grew up with damage and survived on rage,” Jackie’s trainer, Buddhakan (Sheila Atim, “The Underground Railroad”), observes.
Yet though we discover more about Jackie’s life, we never fully learn why she’s attracted to fighting—or what drove her to want to escape the fight at the beginning. (The film Luchadoras earlier this year, although a documentary, depicted clearer arcs of women in hardscrabble lives who turn to the ring for money, opportunities, and respect.) Jackie also falls back into training fairly easily, making it difficult to appreciate milestones such as her learning new maneuvers or making weight before a crucial match.
Forging a relationship with Manny is tougher but has touching wordless moments. Jackie struggles to give Manny, who doesn’t speak, kindness and stability while barely keeping her head together. Berry’s eyes and posture radiate sincerity with the child even when Jackie’s behavior comes up short.
“Bruised” also peppers Jackie’s world with supporting characters who, thanks to evocative performances, seem to have whole lives going on outside the lens. As Pops, a boxing gym veteran, Stephen McKinley Henderson (“Fences”) respects Jackie when few others do. Lenox’s Angel hates that she has to help Jackie as much as Jackie despises her. Atim especially infuses Buddhakan with a wry yet calming presence. At first skeptical, she recognizes Jackie’s fighting spirit, and the two build a friendship, then a tender romantic connection.
“Bruised” includes professional MMA fighters Valentina Shevchenko and Gabi Garcia, and Berry films the brawls with wide and medium shots to capture the fight choreography and intensity. As in any fighting movie, these bouts are less about victory than Jackie’s self-worth—and “Bruised” rewards viewers and Jackie by emerging stronger on the other side.