Jackie “Pretty Bull” Justice (Halle Berry) was once a fast-rising star in the UFC, sporting a 10-0 record. Any MMA fan knows one fight can change a career immediately. Her next bout saw Justice get overwhelmed to where she climbs over the cage in a baffling forfeit. Fast-forward to four years later, and the ghost of Justice’s career is long behind her. She’s taking odd cleaning jobs, people mock her over what happened with the fight, and she stays with her boyfriend, Desi (Adan Canto), who claims to have dropped all his other fighters for her. It’s a less-than-ideal relationship that only benefits him if Jackie gets back in the ring. Desi takes Jackie to an illegal underground brawl where her instincts kick in with a confrontation showing that the will is still inside her somewhere. By chance, trainer/promoter Immaculate (Shamier Anderson) sees this and seizes an opportunity for Jackie to get back to prominence.
If it seems as if Bruised is going to go the easy “fighter battles back” route, it takes a different road to that. Jackie’s life is full of complications and roadblocks. It feels that there’s an avalanche of baggage upon her. As a first-time director, Berry tries to make sure that it all serves a purpose for the main character. When Jessie starts the arduous training process again, her son Manny (Danny Boyd Jr.) suddenly appears on her doorstep. She had given him up for adoption earlier in his life, and their first interaction was of coldness and shock. Manny doesn’t speak, so Jessie has to work that much harder to find some common ground.
When Bruised initially went into production, it was written with a white lead in mind. Berry brings the film’s heart inside Newark, New Jersey, together with cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco, giving the film an authentic look. Things aren’t too neat, and Berry fully embodies her character’s worn but stern look. She fully transforms and immerses herself in this role, physically and emotionally. Adapting Bruised around the circumference of a middle-aged Black woman gives fight films a perspective we don’t see. Films such as the Rocky series and Warrior were concerned with a male perspective. While Bruised borrows a lot of motifs from those films (training montages, moments of truth, the big battle), it also dives into a lot of complex relationships.
One, in particular, is with Jackie’s mother, Angel (Adriane Lenox), where years’ worth of trauma and pain have strained their relationship to the brink of nothingness. The other is with trainer/coach Buddhakan (Sheila Atim), a guiding voice in her return to form, and a romantic partner Jackie finds tenderness in for the first time in a while. There are many philosophical journeys that Jackie embarks on – mainly surrounding getting her career back, learning how to be a mother despite not having the best role model, and finding some sense of self-confidence. It’s a lot to investigate, and Berry does her best to give each issue proper time to unfurl.
If there’s an issue, it’s that these types of fight movies adhere to a particular structure. Michelle Rosenfarb’s screenplay makes sure that with every ounce of momentum that Jackie gains, there’s something to trip hers along the way. It’s as if Bruised knows that you expect things to go a certain way, then gives a quick twist to be unpredictable. As you dive more into her character and inner struggles, it’s pacing that has you looking ahead to the resolution. This wouldn’t be a contender film without a worthy challenger on the other side. Real-life UFC champion Valentina Shevchenko plays Lucia “Lady Killer,” an undefeated champion on the warpath like Jackie was. Shevchenko’s inclusion gives Bruised some professional fighting flair, especially when it comes to an end.
The overall performances jolt some energy into the many stories beats that audiences have seen before. Given all the problems that Jackie withstands, it almost feels impossible that she will resolve them out by the film’s end. Bruised would have put itself in another category if only a couple of threads were developed further. Yet, you still cheer for Jackie and recognize that she’s a work-in-progress – much like a training fighter always is.
Photo Credit: Netflix