The action and drama of combat sports are inherently cinematic. Rocky and Raging Bull are forever masterpieces, and the enduring Karate Kid/Cobra Kai franchise shows that audiences will always show up for stories about hardscrabble heroes and heroines striving for excellence in the crucible of combat. Oscar-winning actress Halle Berry is a mixed martial arts fan: She loved watching boxing on television as a kid, and she’s a cage-side regular at the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s biggest events. Berry’s passion for combat has now spilled onto the big screen — or anyway, for Nashville audiences, the small screen — with a new fight-centric project that she stars in and directs.
Bruised — which has a limited theatrical run in some cities and lands on Netflix this week — begins with a montage of iconic moments from various fights in the UFC’s women’s divisions. Fans of the sport will have seen all of this footage, but it’s edited to thrill and transitions to a POV shot in the last UFC fight featuring Jackie Justice (Berry’s character). She took a savage beating before literally climbing out of the cage, adding humiliation to hematomas. We catch up with Justice years after the fight when she’s a housekeeper with drinking and anger-management issues. She has a very messy on-and-off romantic relationship with her former manager, who takes her to an underground fight club. There Justice’s violent tendencies boil over, and she’s approached to sign to an all-women’s fight league — the real-life Invicta Fighting Championships promotion.
Bruised is unwieldy at times, with some loose and contrived-feeling scripting and hackneyed characters, but it’s got a unique take on the fight genre that makes it well worth watching. Many combat-sports movies give us washed-up has-beens who take one last shot at redemption before we cue the fanfare and the fairy-tale ending. These films follow formulas that predictably yield inspirational tales of personal transformation, focused on the enduring spirit found in the heart of true warriors, and so on and so forth. Bruised makes the surprising choice of focusing almost exclusively on trauma and violence: the trauma of poverty, broken families, abusive relationships, chemical dependency and the slimey machinations of the hurt business. That’s not to mention the violence that thrives in chaotic lives, and in games designed to separate people from consciousness. Bruised has issues, but it nails its tone. It’s brutal and it’s bleak, and it’s ultimately an impressive directorial debut for Berry.
Berry is also completely believable as an angry, violent person with a gift for fighting. She populates the periphery of her film with lots of real-life MMA personalities who likely won’t be getting more acting opportunities anytime soon, but her core cast is full of championship talents. Adriane Lenox plays Jackie’s neglectful mother with believable spite, and Sheila Atim is pitch-perfect as Jackie’s thoughtful and demanding trainer. Stephen McKinley Henderson takes so naturally to the role of a boxing coach that I nearly forgot he was an actor, and Danny Boyd Jr. shines in a difficult role as Jackie’s son Manny, who shows up on Jackie’s doorstep following the murder of his father. The introduction of Jackie’s child only highlights just how toxic the fighter and her life really are. At 6 years old, little Manny is already so shocked by the violence he’s seen that he no longer speaks. In one of the only tender moments in the film, Jackie and Manny happen across a free screening of a 3D movie. The pair cuddle together in their theater chairs, but then Jackie is so exhausted that she falls asleep behind her 3D glasses.
The UFC started in 1993 and signed its first woman fighter, Ronda Rousey, in 2012. During those first two decades, male fighters evolved mixed martial arts from no-holds-barred fighting contests into systems of interlocking combat disciplines executed by world-class athletes. The promotion’s women’s divisions now represent the leading edge in the evolution of an increasingly popular worldwide sport. These lady warriors deserve a film that matches their pioneering grit, and even with its flaws, that’s what Berry has delivered with Bruised.