Jackie Justice (Halle Berry) used to be a fighter. Half a decade ago, it looked like she was bound for MMA greatness with an impressive UFC victory and another fight on the way. But she lost. In many ways, she hasn’t stopped losing since. That’s where we find her at the start of Bruised.
When her son Manny (Danny Boyd Jr.), now nonverbal stemming from the event that killed his father, comes back into her life, she becomes inspired to give up drinking scotch from a spray bottle under the sink and get back in the ring. But will she stick to sobriety and embrace the support of trainer Buddhakan (Sheila Atim)? Or will she collapse under the weight of her past and her abusive relationship with “manager” Desi (Adan Canto)?
Well, I’m sure you can guess.
Bruised Results in a Split Decision
Of course, that goes for most sports films. Even the best of them follow a fairly predictable template. Athlete (or team) in trouble. Athlete (or team) struggles to overcome those issues until they begin to experience success. Athlete (or team) reaches a final contest where they either prove victorious or lose but learn a more significant lesson. The beats don’t matter so much as how the story’s told.
Until the Michelle Rosenfarb scripted drama hits all the dark and depressing beats of the sports film while providing none of the joy of the upswing. That’s not to say Jackie doesn’t improve or achieve. The film, however, lacks the cathartic release those moments usually provide. Instead, it establishes the bad with such commitment that Bruised never shakes the tone even when things go well.
In some ways, Berry perhaps deserves compliments for this. So often, actors’ directing debuts—Bruised is Berry’s—can be vanity projects. Particularly when they’re the stars as well.
However, from the start of the film, Berry lets us see Jackie in all her brokenness, both physical—she spends much of the film literally bruised with a collection of scrapes, shiners, and black eyes—and psychological.
Moreover, the pain doesn’t feel performative. There is a kind of “ugly” performance that can feel as much preening for the camera as ones that emphasize a star’s beauty. Berry eschews that to deliver a character study that feels bone-deep. She’s long demonstrated she’s a good actor, so this isn’t revelatory. Still committing to it when there were easier paths or ones that she could look better doing is laudatory.
Berry also does well by her fellow actors. Perhaps too well as, at times, it feels like perhaps she decided to go the Les Miserables all close-ups all the time route. Thankfully, it never quite tips over to that territory. Additionally, when it works, it provides some of the few moments of beauty in the film. In films, people of color often end up poorly or inappropriately lit. Berry—along with her lighting team and cinematographers Frank G. DeMarco and Joshua Reis—does an excellent job at it, though. There are times with Atim, in particular, looks stunning on-screen in a way that still feels genuine to the world of the film.
Unfortunately, in the same way the plot feels stuck in the downbeat zone, the visuals dwell in roughly the same color palette throughout. The blues, greys, and browns are well-shot, but their dominance proves draining over time. You, and your eyes, grow hungry for more visual variety.
Even hard lives have moments of grace and even rough locations have bursts of color. Bruised, alas, can’t find its way towards hitting those notes that break up its storytelling and visual presentations. Thus, while not an egregious directing debut for Berry, it also isn’t the kind of film one can enthusiastically recommend to others. Viewers will likely be best served by skipping the ring and catching Berry’s next choice.