Synopsis: A disgraced MMA fighter finds redemption in the cage and the courage to face her demons when the son she had given up as an infant unexpectedly reenters her life.
Stars: Halle Berry, Adan Canto, Adriane Lenox, Sheila Atim, Danny Boyd Jr., Shamier Anderson, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Denny Dillon, Valentina Shevchenko, Lela Loren, Nikolai Nikolaeff
Director: Halle Berry
Running Length: 132 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: There are few actors working in Hollywood today that I find myself actively rooting for more than Halle Berry. An actress that had long paid her dues in television and a run of forgettable features in the early ‘90s before becoming the first black woman to win a Best Actress Oscar in 2001 for Monster’s Ball, Berry has a knack for finding herself in terrible projects but coming out smelling like a rose. I recently watched her in the 1996 stinker The Rich Man’s Wife and, aside from believably pulling off a character named Josie, she managed to elevate what should have been a TV movie of the week to something worthy of a cinematic release. A continuing role in the X-Men franchise has kept her afloat when the big swings don’t pan out, but Berry has never gotten back to that same level of promise she showed around that Oscar era. I mean, the now 55 year old survived the disaster that was 2004’s Catwoman so she must have nine lives of her own.
One glance at Bruised may give the impression that Berry has found the exact kind of project that could be the significant comeback story she has been looking for. As the director and star of this gritty story following a retired MMA fighter working her way back into the ring for personal redemption at the same time the son she gave up when he was a baby is left on her doorstep, the film’s logline reads like it was tailor-made for an actress with just the kind of gumption Berry has leagues of. Even considering that Berry wasn’t the first choice for either role (originally, Nick Cassavetes was signed on to direct Blake Lively), her history as a dedicated MMA fan made her an ideal selection because she understood the sport, athletes, and sacrifice required. It doesn’t quite work out as planned…but, we’ll get to that.
Jackie Justice (Berry, The Call) used to be someone special in the brutal sport of MMA cage fighting until she lost her nerve and walked away from it all. Years later she’s barely scraping by, working odd jobs she often loses due to her temper. Living with her boyfriend (Adan Canto, X-Men: Days of Future Past) who wants her to get back into the ring, Jackie simply wants to forget that part of her life, but the past has a way of delivering a right hook when she least expects it. That sly jab comes when the six-year-old son she abandoned as an infant is dropped off by her pill riddled mother (Adriane Lenox, The United States vs. Billie Holiday) in the middle of the night. Refusing to speak after seeing his informant father gunned down, Manny (Danny Boyd, Jr.) was told his mother was dead so this woman before him, worked over by life, is difficult to accept.
With the added responsibility of a child to take care of, Jackie begins to clean up her act. That means ridding her life of several of her addictions, both chemically and personally. It takes a while for Michelle Rosenfarb’s script to get around to taking care of business and it’s one of Bruised’s drawbacks that the film moves slowly through several situations that should be more incidental than they wind up being. Basically, it keeps us from meeting Jackie’s new trainer Buddhakan (Sheila Atim) for that much longer and that is just…not acceptable. As it turns out, this is the most interesting character in the entire film and after we are introduced the viewer spends the rest of the film waiting for them to show up again. It helps that Atim is such an electric presence onscreen that they could be playing a Bingo card and I’d want to watch them buy groceries.
That a secondary character moves into being the central character the viewer relates to speaks to another problem with Bruised. Ostensibly the leading character is Jackie but for much of the film she’s so flimsy that it’s hard to find a way into her side of things. Berry doesn’t help matters with a performance that’s overly earnest in the fight scenes and way too dialed back in the quieter moments. If it’s worth anything, the scenes with Jackie and Manny or Buddhakan are the best of the best because it allows all three performers to shine the brightest. There’s no question Berry is a gifted actress and once she has less to contend with in terms of moving pieces around her, she’s right on target.
Built around a handful of fight sequences and trainings for the fight sequences, I was a little disappointed at how poorly filmed and edited the early scenes were and it didn’t give me a lot of confidence that the final match, what the entirety of the movie was building to, would be much better. Surprisingly, while I often find these “grand finales” a little overwrought, Berry pulls out all the stops physically and as a director. You can tell she wanted to get this section, out of all of them, correct and that quest for perfection shows.
Like the central character, Bruised is often rough around the edges and needs some time to settle down and relax. Once you get past the some of the scratchier elements that Berry can’t quite smooth out, there’s a fairly decent film to be found with several nicely tuned performances. It’s not going to be Berry’s new calling card or a golden ticket back to the Oscars, but I think it will continue to open her up to new opportunities like this. If anything, I was appreciative to be let into Berry’s MMA fandom through this dramatized story that finds occasional emotional resonance through its strongest supporting performances.