It’s the MMA version of “Million Dollar Baby” meets “Rocky” in Halle Berry’s directorial debut “Bruised,” a well-acted and occasionally involving but overly long, cliché-stuffed sports film that hits all the usual notes and piles on the subplot drama to the point where we’re nearly exhausted by the viewing experience.
Berry reminds us of her longstanding movie-star power in a no-frills, authentic and moving performance as a disgraced UFC fighter named Jackie Justice who is given the obligatory One Last Shot at Redemption. Her overall direction is suitably tailored to the gritty story, but “Bruised” is far too predictable, and the screenplay is filled with borderline corny dialogue and obvious symbolism. I mean, subtlety is not the order of the day when “Just the Two of Us” plays on a small speaker in front of a storefront when two characters realize it’s, well, just the two of them; when we hear a string music version of “Hallelujah” on the soundtrack as a key character makes a big first stride in the right direction; and when a trainer tells Jackie, “This is your shot, Jackie, this is your shot … to show all of them the real Jackie Justice.”
Yes. We know that. We’ve been watching the movie.
When we meet Berry’s Jackie, she’s working as a maid for rich snobs, drinking too much and living in a tiny Newark apartment with her verbally abusive boyfriend/manager Desi (Adan Canto). (During one of their almost nightly fights, Jackie exclaims, “You’re a part-time limo driver and a full-time loser!”) When Desi surprises Jackie by taking her to a basement fight club and Jackie has to defend herself against a much larger brawler, she shows enough grit and fight to draw the attention of the promoter known as Immaculate (Shamier Anderson), who hooks Jackie up with the Zen badass trainer Buddhakan (Sheila Atim), and yes, all these colorful names for characters are straight out of the Sylvester Stallone playbook. In what seems like a very short time, Immaculate offers Jackie the opportunity to fight for the UFC Women’s Flyweight Championship against the undefeated Lady Killer (played by real-life UFC champ Valentina Shevchenko.) Looks like we’ve got ourselves a good old-fashioned Underdog Sports Movie!
We also get enough side drama to fill an entire and separate film when Jackie’s mother, Angel (Adriane Lenox) shows up one night with Jackie’s 6-year-old son Manny (Danny Boyd Jr.) after Manny’s father was shot and killed. Manny is so traumatized he doesn’t speak, Jackie hasn’t seen the boy since she abandoned him when he was an infant, and to say there’s some serious stuff in Jackie’s past that she needs to work out with her mother is a massive understatement.
“Bruised” delivers the expected series of montages/metaphors, as Jackie isn’t just training for the big fight, she’s training for the Fight of Her Life. The climactic fight is well-shot (with the usual combination of long shots and quick-cut closeups as the camera swirls about, indie-style), but Lady Killer isn’t a particular hiss-worthy villain or even a villain at all, as the real fight is between Jackie and her past. After all Jackie and the viewer have been through, the battle and its aftermath just don’t pack all that much of a lasting punch.