‘Bruised’: There’s More Pain Than Gain in Halle Berry’s Directorial Debut

For her directorial debut, Halle Berry shows her gritty side in sports drama “Bruised.” The Oscar-winner stars as Jackie Justice, a down-on-her-luck former UFC champ seeking another shot at glory. Along the way, she has to transform into a better person, and getting into peak physical shape is just half the battle.

When we first meet Jackie, she’s a cleaning lady who gets fired after her employer’s teen son takes a video of her changing. Enraged, she pushes the kid down and destroys his phone. Jackie is such an alcoholic at this point in her life that she takes to hiding booze in empty bottles of cleaning solution, spraying liquor into her mouth when she needs a quick fix to get through the day. After her boyfriend and former manager, Desi (Adan Canto), drags her to an underground match, she ends up beating down a fellow female fighter who appears to be twice her size, which attracts the attention of promoter Immaculate (Shamier Anderson), who invites her to come train at his gym.

Jackie decides to resume training, but throwing a wrench into her plans is the arrival of Manny (Danny Boyd Jr.), the six-year-old son she left with his father when he was a baby. Her ex has been killed in an undercover operation, and his girlfriend drops the boy at the home of Jackie’s mother (Adriane Lenox) off screen. Mom leaves it to Jackie to take care of her own mess, although the older woman, who carries herself like someone who has had a hard life and doesn’t want to deal with anyone else’s shit, doesn’t seem to have much faith in her daughter. Although Manny has been mute since his father’s death, a video Jackie finds proves that he has musical talent. Although being maternal doesn’t come naturally to Jackie, we see her do her best and make sacrifices for him. In one scene, she tells him he can pick out candy at the store, and when she doesn’t have enough money at checkout, she puts back a box of tampons. She also buys Manny a keyboard she finds on sale, only to have Desi get angry and destroy it in a heartbreaking scene.

At Immaculate’s gym, Jackie works with kindly veteran trainer Pops (Stephen McKinley Henderson). She also trains with more new age trainer Buddhakan (Sheila Atim). The two women become close, and Buddhakan even lets Jackie stay with her when she’s at her lowest. She deals with her trauma by pouring herself into training, and a hefty cash prize leads to her agreeing to participate in a televised match against one Lady Killer (Valentina Shevchenko, the real-life UFC Women’s Flyweight Champion). 

“Bruised” was originally by Michelle Rosenfarb featuring a Jackie who was a 21-year-old Irish-Catholic woman. While Berry worked with Rosenfarb to change the script for a middle-aged Black lead, it’s hard to decipher what exactly was altered, as the film glosses over Jackie’s age and barely acknowledges race. Instead, the script is filled with a multitude of clichés, including a scene of Jackie pouring bottles of alcohol down the sink, an ill-fated lesbian romance, an explosive mother-daughter argument.

What Berry does get right is casting, especially when it comes to Atim, Lenox and Boyd. Still, it is hard to rise above such stale tropes. One cliché that works in the story’s favor is the climatic fight between Jackie and Lady Killer. In the spirit of films such as “Rocky,” it’s filled with plenty of cheer-worthy moments, but the viewer knows that whatever happens in the ring, Jackie truly proves herself to be a real winner by taking care of herself and Manny, who has a breakthrough in the emotional final moments of the film.

Bruised” begins streaming Nov. 24 on Netflix.