In Halle Berry’s directorial debut Bruised, the Oscar-winner gives one of her best performances yet. However, her talent in front and behind the camera will leave you wishing the script was better.
Spoiler Warning: This review of Bruised contains spoilers. You have been warned.
Trigger Warning: This review mentions sexual abuse.
As a fan of Halle Berry, I stopped myself from writing a review of Bruised as soon as I watched it. I wanted to give myself time and rewatch the film more than once so as not to allow any unconscious bias to cloud my opinions as a movie critic. Here’s hoping I succeeded.
When Halle Berry decided to direct her first feature film, it was gutsy of her to select a project in which she was also the lead. One would think she would have directed a short film or perhaps kept herself solely behind the camera for her directorial debut. But nopes. Berry decided to do it all in Bruised, leading to mixed results.
In Bruised, Berry plays the role of an MMA fighter named Jackie Justice. The film opens with Jackie fighting an opponent only to experience a panic attack and have to run away from the fight. I personally liked Berry’s decision to keep the camera in a first-person view so we could see what Jackie saw.
Four years later, we find Jackie cleaning expensive houses as a maid and stealing alcohol from her boyfriend/manager, Desi (Adan Canto). She’s down on her luck and in a way, she’s not interested in making things better for herself. Jackie’s made peace with having such an unfortunate life.
Everything changes when she accompanies Desi to an underground fight and finds herself having to face an intimidating opponent. There’s a lot of raw anger inside of Jackie that comes out when she starts punching someone. Her performance catches the eye of Immaculate (Shamier Anderson), who wants to represent Jackie and get her back in the professional MMA world. Having experienced the adrenaline of fighting again, Jackie agrees. However, things change even more for her when a son she hasn’t seen in years reenters her life because the son’s father got shot while undercover.
So, not only does Jackie have to try and take care of her son, Manny (played impressively by Danny Boyd, Jr), she also has to train hard to return to her MMA past. On top of that, she needs to figure out her toxic relationship with Desi while dealing with her blossoming feelings for her trainer, Buddhakan (played by the captivating Sheila Atim). Not to mention, the emotional burden Jackie still carries due to how she was treated by her mother, Angel (Adriane Lenox), as a child.
There’s just a whole lot going on in Bruised. Manny doesn’t speak due to the trauma of his life completely changing after his father’s death. Jackie confronts Angel about the sexual abuse she continuously endured as a child and how her mother wasn’t there to protect her. Jackie’s romance with Buddhakan has issues that Jackie needs time to figure out because she’s already juggling too many things at once.
I’m not saying that complex characters shouldn’t be created. We all know a single person can go through a lot of stuff simultaneously in real life. It’s just that, when you’re telling a story, it always helps to remain focused, especially if certain things are going to be left unresolved. I’m not surprised how all of the drama Jackie’s put through is being described as cliché by certain viewers and critics.
Personally, how the stuff between Jackie and Angel was handled made sense to me. The point of their interactions was to show that a door had been opened for the two to continue talking about their past and find some way to heal down the line if it was even possible to do so. However, having said that, the critic in me would have liked a better closure to the situation. The resolution could have been a bit tighter.
The same goes for Jackie’s romance with Buddhakan. Yes, they mended their relationship in the end, but why did Buddhakan do what she did in the first place when she walked off with a bottle of alcohol? I would have liked a better explanation about Buddhakan hurting herself.
While on the subject of Buddhakan, I think the queer romance was handled well. The connection between her and Jackie felt genuine. Having been in a problematic relationship with Desi for years, I understood why Jackie gravitated toward some as calm and loving as Buddhakan even if hooking up with her trainer wasn’t the best idea. Berry directed the sexually intimate scene between the two characters without exploiting anyone’s bodies. The entire scene felt romantic and sensual and a sharp contrast to how Jackie used to be intimate with Desi.
For those wondering, would I have liked an openly queer actress to be cast as Buddhakan? Yes. When it comes to queer representation in media, I’m all for having openly queer talent being given a platform to tell stories featuring queer characters.
With the majority of the film being quite emotionally heavy, Bruised really picks up steam during the final 20 minutes as Jackie gets ready to face her opponent, Lady Killer (played by actual UFC Flyweight Champion Valentina Shevchenko). You can tell that Berry’s passionate about portraying an MMA fighter authentically. She put in the work to make Jackie’s confrontation with Lady Killer appear real. Jackie vs Lady Killer got me very excited and I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by the outcome.
Even though, in my opinion, the screenplay had issues, I think the conclusion of Jackie’s struggle to get back in the ring, after being away for years, was handled well. It was never about winning a title for Jackie. It was about facing her demons and not allowing her past to control her anymore. Jackie’s true win was being acknowledged by the people, repairing her image, and bonding with Manny. The final moments of the movie got me very emotional as Jackie and Manny began the next chapter in their lives together.
With Bruised, Berry’s given us an MMA story about a queer Black MMA fighter. I don’t think Hollywood has ever seen that before (do correct me if I’m wrong). She’s also the first Black “Best Actress” Oscar-winner to direct as well as star in a feature film. The Bruised soundtrack also produced the first All-Female Hip-Hop Album. These are accomplishments that continue to brighten Berry’s iconic status in the entertainment industry. The award narrative is strong, with Berry, being a WoC in Hollywood, needing to direct and star in a film herself to get back in award-related chatter after winning an Oscar almost two decades ago.
However, on a more focused note, Bruised is ultimately a movie not helped by a subpar script even though it boasts impressive performances by Berry, Atim, and Danny Boyd, Jr. The narrative will leave you thinking about what this movie could have been. Why not showcase the inner workings of the MMA-centric championships and how PoC female athletes are treated in a male-dominated area?
Even though the screenplay is by Michelle Rosenfarb, Berry’s been very open about how she decided to reimagine the script originally meant for a young white woman. So, I have to put the blame for some of the shortcomings in the narrative on Berry’s shoulders, too.
Berry has shown that she has what it takes to direct an entire movie (Bruised is more than 2 hours long). She has some things that need to be polished, of course. And that can be done with time. I’m looking forward to seeing her next directorial project. I’m also curious to see what she can deliver when she remains completely behind the camera or directs a project while giving herself a smaller acting role.
Released on Netflix on November 24, 2021, after a limited theatrical run, even with certain narrative flaws, Bruised is performing well for the streaming service, having reached No 1 in the US and many other countries. With Berry starring in the upcoming The Mothership for Netflix, perhaps Netflix will assist Berry in pursuing another project to direct? Let’s see.
What did you think of Bruised?
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Farid has a Double Masters in Psychology and Biotechnology as well as an M.Phil in Molecular Genetics. He is the author of numerous books including Missing in Somerville, and The Game Master of Somerville. He gives us insight into comics, books, TV shows, anime/manga, video games, and movies.
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