The modern-day sports movie essentially grew out of 1976’s Best Picture winner – and franchise starter – Rocky. Since then, the inspirational drama has informed countless others, boxing or otherwise. While the Rocky mega-franchise almost nearly dominated fighting cinema during the late ‘70s and all of the ‘80s, in recent vintage we’ve seen somewhat of a resurgence in the subgenre with the likes of Million Dollar Baby, Warrior, Fighting With My Family, The Fighter, Southpaw, and a slew of others.
The world of high-contact sports films is well traversed, and understandably so. Boxing, mixed martial arts, and wrestling are perhaps the most conducive for cinematic pleasure. Team sports don’t seem to build and release tension quite the same as two people going toe to toe with one another, vulnerable and alone as they parallel their own personal struggles outside of the ring (or cage). This setting is the perfect building block for a first-time director, guaranteeing them, at the very least, a thrilling climax.
Fortunately, Halle Berry gives us slightly more than that in her own directorial debut, Bruised, where she also stars as Jackie Justice, a washed-up UFC fighter struggling with alcoholism and self doubt. Her road to recovery only gets more complicated when her estranged 6-year-old son, Manny (Danny Boyd Jr.), shows up on her doorstep after the death of his biological father. Jackie abandoned Manny some years ago and hasn’t fought in the octagon since. Following financial and personal struggles, she’s now determined to get back into shape and make the most of her second chance to be a mother.
The problem with Bruised is that it gives us high stakes to fuel the central concept of an athlete’s comeback, when that comeback should be a foregone conclusion considering how our heroine is presented. Jackie hasn’t been absent from the sport for all that long (4 years) and was undefeated prior to her last bout where she essentially gave up on the match. We know once she returns to fighting form and gets her ducks in a row (or not) that she will display the natural talent she’s always had. This leaves the dramatic tension solely in the matters of Jackie’s personal life.
The movie makes no concessions about showing us Jackie’s talent. She demolishes a large woman in an underground fight club early on and gets noticed by a promoter almost instantly. And yet we’re supposed to buy into the idea that her ostensibly uphill battle with the sport is going to match her uphill battle in life. Struggling with an emotional boyfriend, a petty mother, and low self-worth, Jackie never quite achieves the kind of release we expect fighting to provide her with, outside of a route to becoming financially stable. And so, the argument for her career comeback gets sunken with an inability to make it mean anything significant enough to our protagonist.
From a script by Michelle Rosenfarb, the story surrounding Jackie’s physical training is built from countless pieces of other dramas, especially those of the sports variety. Through beating down on its protagonist, Bruised utilizes the same misery porn that seems to permeate through most fighting movies these days. There are some raw moments and heartbreaking turns, even a sense of urgency, but these all feel like formula-driven stand-ins for actual energy or inspiration, both on screen and behind the camera. I imagine it’s difficult to project a sense of originality when a story mostly stems from things we’ve seen before.
Like most films where the child is used as an emotional catalyst for the protagonist, Manny ends up becoming the more sympathetic character, whose life is the one thrown around at the expense of Jackie figuring out her own issues. His love-filled life with his father is upended and he’s forced to live with his mother who he doesn’t know at all, still missing his dad.
Berry’s role requires that she pretend like she’s more apathetic towards Manny than she really is for the sake of her character’s growth and development later on. Her performance is conspicuously contained as she’s not given much room to fluctuate amidst her moping and brooding. You can tell she’s forcing herself to be down and out.
As the director she has an asset in editor Jacob Craycroft (Brigsby Bear), who helps give the film a clean pace, just like he’s done in several other projects (by first-time directors no less). However, with the straightforward plot, there’s no excuse for the storytelling to be anything but breezy.
Benefitting from a handful of sweet moments, even if they’re undermined by more misery, the film thankfully never falls into the man-hating trap it’s presented with and also makes a great case for how kids can impact your life, whether you wanted them or not, and how running away from your problems isn’t a just thing to do. Sometimes you need to have your feet glued to the ground in order for you to change.
Featuring a soundtrack riddled with Cardi B knockoffs (including a track by the rapper herself), Bruised is a remarkably generic and telegraphed sports drama, but by no means bad or unwatchable, or even sloppy. If nothing else, it’s an excellent directorial debut for Halle Berry, who clearly gives her all both in front and behind the camera. The climax is expectedly moving, but also, I can’t think of a single fighting movie where that isn’t the case.