*As much as “Bruised” is a new spin on a formulaic Hollywood construct on the arc of a title fighter, at its core, it is a brooding meditation on a focus group of long-suffering people just coping to make it through to tomorrow.
With characters ranging from a child to a grey-haired ring corner coach to Berry as a fallen fighter who walked away from the game to a rag tag cast of people from four corners of the globe, the wounds every one is walking around with have cut them deep.
As the directorial debut of Oscar-winning actress Halle Berry, symbolically now in her 30th year of working in motion pictures (two more when you add television), this is an unabashedly emotional piece weaving subplots of pushed to the limits athleticism, dysfunctional families, substance abuse, human exploitation for entertainment, and people using other people via acts of emotional desperation into a very tightly knit ball.
Berry stars as fallen flyweight (125 pounds) Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighter “Jackie Justice” who rises only so far in all her life endeavors before choking and running way. When the film starts, she is living with her highly suspect Rican boyfriend/manager “Desi” (Adan Canto) doing domestic work to make ends meet, sneaking squirts of alcohol from detergent spray bottles and sheepishly telling herself she’s “happy.” In a slump of his own, Desi drags Jackie to an underground fight as a spectator. When she’s recognized as a former champ, she is challenged right there in the audience, beats the woman to a pulp in a rage and is spotted by fight promoter “Immaculate” (Shamier Anderson) who intuits she has what it takes to make a comeback. Adding pressure on her private life, her mother (Adriane Lenox) pops up to drop off the son Jackie abandoned to his father. This baby’s daddy was murdered and now Jackie must pick up the pieces. “Manny” (Danny Boyd, Jr.) witnessed his daddy’s demise and has gone mute behind it.
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This is not the first time Berry, truly among the world’s most beautiful women, has emphatically thrown herself into a role that downplays her looks to tell a grittier story – from her film debut as a crack ho in Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever” to her Oscar-winning turn in “Monster’s Ball.” But the role of “Jackie Justice” requires her to take as many or more beatings as she gives out.
Her athleticism is more impressive in her grueling training scenes than in the ring. The boxing and kickboxing exhibitions here are brutal yet unspectacular compared to those in testosterone packed male action flicks.
Where “Jackie” kicks the most ass is when she gets her opponents down on the floor where her takedowns, thigh grips and leg flip maneuvers are masterfully unimpeachable.
Also of note are two diametrically opposed sex scenes – one with Desi and another with her seemingly spiritually centered African female trainer “Bobbi Buddha Khan” (an excellent Sheila Atim) revealing the underlying needs of desperate people. Neither scene is superfluous – both reveal key character traits of all three characters. The latter is artfully intimate and rare among Black females in a mainstream film. And neither is as drawn out as the infamous one from “Monster’s Ball.”
On the questionable side are quibbles such as continuity issues with how bruised Halle’s face is from scene to scene. The formula of this story will not be lost on anyone with even a modicum of boxing movie history under their belt. And because these characters are street people, the dialogue (screenplay by Michelle Rosenfarb) is more straightforward than eloquent.
However, the performances of all involved range from solid to exceptional, including Jackie’s supportive corner man “Pops” (a warm Stephen McKinley Henderson) and Jackie’s climactic Argentinian opponent “Lady Killer” (a fierce Valentina Shevchenko). The relationship “Jackie” coaxes out of her traumatized son is hard-won but heartfelt. Ditto for that with her feisty survivalist mom.
And unlike recent films where there have been uprisings about the skin tone of Black characters, this film respectfully and effectively spans the spectrum.
“Bruised” also boasts a fiery femme-centric Hip Hop score kissed with the Soul-Jazz gem “Just the Two of Us,” poignantly rerecorded by Berry’s real-life beau, Van Hunt, who also contributed the original song, “Automatic Woman,” co-composed with H.E.R. who sings it. (note: Halle B co-produced the soundtrack with rapper Cardi B).
In the end, the grey area between wins and losses is the space where truth is revealed for these characters, especially Jackie. And it is that lesson that audiences should walk away from the film overstanding – that in some black and white losses there is a rainbow of triumph that can carry you through to brighter days.
“Bruised” (R) opened in limited theatrical release on Wednesday November 17 and debuts on Netflix Wednesday November 24. Running Time: 2 hrs. 12mins.
(*Film reviewed via a private theatrical screening.)