BRUISED. With a few exceptions, fight movies are the realm of men, with women on the periphery, inspiring, pleading and worrying, sometimes as emotional surrogates for taciturn male leads. Halle Berry's directorial debut Bruised, in which she stars as a broken down MMA fighter, skips that route, though it treads some familiar ground, like struggle for redemption and the big top-of-the-card finale. But along with giving us a grittier and more physically intense role than we've seen from Berry, and some genuinely exciting bouts, Bruised adds a point of view to the genre. It's messy and unresolved in places, but it's also a surprisingly intimate and understated movie about trauma and patience.
Locked in the octagon before a roaring crowd, Jackie "Pretty Bull" Justice, a 10-0 UFC fighter, takes a hail of punches before she climbs the chain link to escape in a dizzying panic. So ends her promising career in the ring. Four years later, occasionally recognized and ridiculed, Jackie is cleaning house for a rich family, a gig she loses along with her cool in dealing with their budding sex offender son. Her main coping strategies appear to be running, sneaking whiskey from a cleaning spray bottle and fighting with her angry mook of a boyfriend/manager Desi (Adan Canto). He desperately wants her back in the ring but Jackie wants no part of it. So Desi takes her to an underground fight under false pretenses, where she's crowded, mocked and taunted into throwing down with an enormous, snarling woman whose "Werewolf" moniker feels both redundant and like an understatement. And throw down Jackie does, with bloody brutality that catches the eye of flashy Invicta promoter Immaculate (Shamier Anderson as both snake and charmer). Likely still concussed, Jackie is confronted by her angry mother Angel (an excellent Adriane Lenox) and Jackie's estranged 6-year-old boy, Manny (Danny Boyd Jr.). Stunned, jobless and ill-equipped to care for the boy, whose father has been killed, leaving him traumatized and not speaking, Jackie submits herself to the punishments and wisdom of Immaculate's highly skeptical head trainer Buddhakan (Sheila Atim). So begins Jackie's second act as a fighter and possibly something more than a stranger to her son.
There are some fine performances in Bruised, Berry's chief among them. Smaller moments between her and the impossibly sweet-faced Boyd are in turns heartbreaking and tender. Written by Michelle Rosenfarb, the script offers no awards-friendly speeches, with Jackie as silent as Manny in some scenes. But Berry accomplishes a great deal below the surface, behind sunglasses and under the shadow of a hoodie or a cascade of bloodied braids. Her swollen and scarred face is rough terrain that shifts from defiance to obedience, rage to terror. Jackie comes to us through Berry's whole body, her desperation and rage through her grappling in the ring, her panic through her running full speed on empty streets, the graffiti-crowded buildings like manifestations of her racing mind. The physical achievement of Berry pulling this off at 55 is undeniable, even if it's a reach. But as youth-obsessed as Hollywood is, this is no rom com, and I wonder if an equally fit woman in her 30s or even 40s would still read as washed up in the same way, as a woman too old to go five rounds with one in her 20s.
As the meditating trainer Buddhakan, Antim brings dimension and intensity impossible to look away from, not to mention goal-worthy posture. But there is humanity and vulnerability there, too. Everyone in this movie, even the sharp-tongued Angel, is carrying something heavy.
There are narrative gaps, particularly regarding Manny's father and Jackie's absence from his life, a "long story" that's never told. And while the standard training montage (standard for its inclusion but not its content — I think I slipped a disk just watching) hits the spot for fight movie fans, the pacing elsewhere can be clunky.
The camera gives us a first-person view of Jackie being pummeled, close shots of her swollen eye and bloody face, and the smears of blood on the mat. But it also shows us her silent contemplation of her sleeping son's tiny body, and his upward gaze at her stony, busted, unfamiliar face. As thrilling as the fight choreography is (damn, that ground game), and as genuinely as we root for Jackie in the octagon, it's the small gestures of trust between Jackie and Manny where we see a glimmer of salvation. R. 129M. NETFLIX.
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (she/her) is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.
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For showtimes call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456.