It’s not easy to make a compelling sports movie set in the world of MMA.
While boxing spectacles such as Rocky and Raging Bull are considered iconic pieces of film history, MMA can only really point to Warrior with a similar amount of reverence after Nick Nolte earned an Academy Award nomination for his role as a better-trainer-than-he-was-a-father character in Gavin O’Connor’s 2011 movie that also starred Tom Hardy.
Oscar winner Halle Berry does her absolute best to add her new film Bruised to that upper echelon of MMA-based sports films, and while the movie is far better than most of its predecessors, there’s still a predictable cliché at the heart of the story that’s just impossible to escape.
The film, which also serves as Berry’s directorial debut, centers around Jackie Justice — a disgraced ex-UFC fighter whose life fell apart following the first loss of her career. Four years after her final appearance in the octagon, Jackie is stuck cleaning houses, barely making ends meet, and living with her abusive boyfriend/manager in a rundown apartment in Newark. She’s drawn back into the fight world after destroying a much larger opponent at an underground show. Jackie is offered a second chance by a flashy promoter who runs Invicta FC, because he sees the former UFC fighter as the perfect foil to put over his new champion, nicknamed “Lady Killer” (played by real UFC champion Valentina Shevchenko).
As Jackie attempts to get herself back into shape to compete again, her life is thrown into even more upheaval when the son she abandoned just after he was born gets dropped off on her front doorstep following the death of his father. Now Jackie must learn how to fight again while also figuring out how to be a parent for the first time in her life.
If the overall story sounds somewhat familiar, that’s because it’s a fairly formulaic plot that should result in Sylvester Stallone receiving residual payments after he did it best in Rocky.
As a character study, Bruised is equal parts fascinating and frustrating, because there are certainly moments where Jackie is attempting to right the course of her life while those who claim to love her are simultaneously tearing her down again, and it’s tough to watch.
It’s during those moments when Berry proves why she’s such a force of nature in front of the camera, because her portrayal as a downtrodden fighter who is scratching and clawing her way back to the surface is nothing short of compelling.
That said, Bruised still struggles to stay away from the typical tropes that seemingly haunt every fictional fight movie centered around a down-on-his-luck athlete just looking for a chance to succeed, except in this case it’s a woman in the lead role.
There’s nothing wrong with a great tale of redemption, but the unique parts of this particular story still get weighed down by the all-too-predictable plot twists that haunt just about every film set in this universe.
The problems with Bruised mostly revolve around the story, which manages to confront some truly disturbing and heartbreaking relationships but then fails to capitalize on those moments later in the movie. With a 2-hour-and-15-minute run time, you’d think Bruised would have more than enough time to tie up all those loose ends, but that just doesn’t happen here.
When it comes to the fight scenes and choreography, Berry proves that she’s still every bit an action star, especially when going toe-to-toe with real athletes and world champions like Shevchenko. It’s more than evident that Berry is a legitimate MMA fan, because she threw herself into more than two years of training in order to bring authenticity to her role.
A huge issue with so many past MMA films are the utterly ridiculous fight scenes, many of which leave even the most casual viewer rolling their eyes at what they see on-screen. In Bruised, Berry manages to walk a tightrope between fictional filmmaking and understanding what the audience she’s playing to might actually believe.
While there are still plenty of old-school tactics used to cheat in fight choreography — such as a shaky camera rattling when punches are landing, or relying on unrealistic angles to showcase striking — Berry avoids the most obvious pitfalls that have doomed so many fight films prior to hers. She keeps it simple and sticks to a style that might actually unfold in a real fight, which is refreshing when dealing with this genre.
It’s hard to imagine Bruised will be remembered far beyond Berry’s performance or her strong debut as a director, but this movie — with all its faults — is still vastly better than the majority of MMA films that came before it.