Sports movies are often among the most predictable films out there. The formula — a person or a team that few people believe in defies expectations to achieve success or at least respect — is one that has been repeated ad nauseam. The best sports movies find a way to rise above or mitigate their clichés, making viewers forget they already know what’s going to happen.
That, unfortunately, is not the case with Bruised, in which Halle Berry stars and makes her directorial debut. Berry plays Jackie Justice, a former MMA fighter who’s down on her luck, cleaning houses for a living and doing her best to hide her alcoholism. When her loser of a manager/boyfriend, Desi (Adan Canto), brings her to an underground fight, an impromptu bout leads to Jackie catching the eye of Immaculate (Shamier Anderson), who fronts a local training facility.
There, with the help of trainer Buddhakan (Sheila Atim), Jackie starts getting the urge to fight again. But at almost the same time, she finds herself having to take custody of her son Manny (Danny Boyd Jr.), whom she left with his father soon after he was born. The triple burden of getting back into fighting shape, reconnecting with her son (who won’t speak, for unknown reasons), and avoiding the wrath of Desi threatens to derail her quest before it even begins.
The film, written by Michelle Rosenfarb, holds very few surprises, aside from the addition of the long-lost son. But that’s not its biggest problem. Instead, Berry and Rosenfarb somehow find a way to make the inspirational sports story as unappealing as possible. That’s not because Jackie herself is unlikable; the obstacles she has to overcome are such that it’s difficult not to root for her. But the filmmakers are just missing that certain something to take her from merely being the protagonist to being the story’s hero.
Of course, Jackie is a complicated figure, especially since she all but abandoned her own child. But plenty of other lead characters in sports movies have been equally complex and won over audiences’ hearts in spite of their faults. Jackie’s journey is never fleshed out to the degree that she earns the respect of either the viewers or the other characters in the film.
Much of this has to do with Jackie’s confusing background. Berry herself is 54, but it’s unclear whether Jackie is supposed to be that age, too. At one point, they say that Jackie has been out of the sport for four years, and with Manny being only 6 years old, it feels like Jackie is supposed to be younger, at least in her early 40s. But the lack of clarity only adds to the frustrating nature of the story.
It might have been a bit much for Berry to star in her directorial debut. As the director, she doesn’t seem to know how to rein in the more outlandish impulses she has as an actor, a lack of nuance that hurts her performance. Other actors fare better, especially Atim, who exudes a real calm in her role, and Boyd, who relies almost exclusively on his cuteness in the wordless part.
In Bruised, the filmmakers know exactly what points to hit, but they don’t have a good feel as to how to make them impactful. Berry is a great actress, but this film does her no favors on or off the screen.
Bruised is now streaming on Netflix.