This one surprised me, I’ll fully admit. Marking the directing debut of Oscar-winning actor Halle Berry, Bruised is set in the world of mixed martial arts, centering on a former UFC fighter named Jackie Justice (Berry), who was on her way to becoming one of the best in the league when her manager/boyfriend Desi (Adan Canto) puts her in a match in which she’s up against someone out of her weight class. In the midst of getting beat down, she climbs out of the cage, meaning her career is effectively over.
Jumping ahead about four years, Jackie is cleaning houses and still with her loser boyfriend. She still regrets what she did in that ring years earlier, but she refuses to fight again. That is, until she ends up at an unsanctioned match (Desi drags her, saying he’s recruiting another fighter to build up his client roster again, which is basically non-existent). But when she gets into a battle with the reigning champion, she gets enraged at being taunted when people recognize her, ending up taking down this other woman heartily and capturing the attention of fight promoter Immaculate (Shamier Anderson) in the process. He convinces her to work with his top trainer, Buddhakan (a laser-focused Sheila Atim), to possibly get her back in the octagon. When she gets home that night, another surprise is waiting for her: her estranged mother (Adriane Lenox) is waiting for her with Jackie’s son Manny (newcomer Danny Boyd Jr.)—the son she gave custody of to his father—in tow. The boy witnessed his father get killed in gang violence and is traumatized to the point where he doesn’t talk and seems scared of everything.
Having Manny around gives Jackie a real reason to get back into fighting—she needs the money. She quits drinking, gets Manny enrolled in a local school, and begins a training regimen with Buddhakan that is grueling and tough to watch, especially since it’s clear that Berry is the one going through the brutal routines. Working with older trainer Pops (Stephen McKinley Henderson), the team hones Jackie’s body, while Jackie works hard at home to improve her mind and get through some of her own childhood trauma, which has risen to the surface with the introduction of Manny back into her life. She understands his desire to stay quiet and afraid, and as we move through the film, we begin to understand too. Not to use boxing metaphors, but Bruised pulls no punches in its depiction of Jackie’s tough life, and Berry pulls off another searing performance in a drama with unexpected depth and resonance.
All roads lead to Jackie getting back into the cage for a title fight against Lady Killer (the impossibly super-charged Valentina Shevchenko). Her relationship with Buddhakan gets more intimate than either of them imagined, but at one point, Jackie makes one of the most mature decisions of her life regarding her ability to function in a relationship at this moment in her life, and it’s heartbreaking for both women. Written by Michelle Rosenfarb, Bruised is one of the better sports movies I’ve seen recently because the outcome of the match almost doesn’t matter; just the fact that Jackie made it back and puts up a helluva fight against Lady Killer means she’s won regardless. Which in no way means Berry the director doesn’t shoot the shit out of that final throw-down, which is seriously one of the most intense and ugly fights I’ve ever seen committed to film. You feel the blows and kicks, the impacts are muffled but still crack in a way that bodies shouldn’t be able to endure. And then there’s the blood.
Jackie’s fight payday is enough to get her back on her feet and stop depending on deadbeat boyfriends and pill-popping mothers to take care of her or her son. Bruised illustrates that there are few things more motivating than for everyone to stop believing you can do something. I know nothing about MMA, so it was refreshing and something of a relief that the film also acts as a crash course in the ins and outs of the sport and why it was important for Jackie to lean into her strength as a takedown artist rather than just as a puncher. Once she gets an opponent on the ground, she owns them. I got caught up in the personal and competitive drama of Bruised, and I hope Berry gets another chance to direct because her visual language underscores her character’s pain so effortlessly. This is a worthy and inspiring work on several levels.
The film is now streaming on Netflix.
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