A pull-out-all-the-cliches and throw in a few on-the-nose new ones script leaves Halle Berry’s directing debut, “Bruised,” a split decision.
As a showcase for the fittest 55 year-old in the cinema, one who masters fight choreography and is (mostly) convincing in the clinches, it’s a winner. But every time we just about lose ourselves in this solid genre picture, some theft from “The Champ,” “Requiem for a Heavyweight” or — this is new — “Personal Best” pops up and reminds us that it’s not the first-time director who’s making this one bleed out, it’s the first-time screenwriter.
Berry plays Jackie Justice, a UFC MMA contender we meet at her darkest hour. Losing an important fight in which she’s taking a beating, she tries to flee the octagon. Simply not done. But she is. Done, I mean.
Four years later, Jackie’s crawled in a bottle — so many bottles that as a housekeeper who drinks on the job, she’s taken to slipping her booze into spray bottles so that she’s never far away from a shot.
“You used to be thick and famous” the punks on the Newark Light Rail tease. But no more.
Her boyfriend/manager (Adan Canto, all testosterone and contempt) resents that his meal ticket refuses to fight any more. But the animalistic sex makes up for it, I guess.
Lured to an “unsanctioned” basement brawl, Jackie is goaded into mixing it up with a Russian behemoth she isn’t even sure is a woman. That’s where we see her secret weapon — rage.
In the octagon, Jackie is either fight of flight. There’s nothing in between.
A new promoter/manager (Shamier Anderson) sees some fight in the old broad and sends her to his favorite trainer, Buddhakan. And the former British fighter (Sheila Atim was in TV’s “Underground Railroad”) is a reluctant convert. She sees a quitter. She sees somebody who’s “old.”
If you’re walking the tightrope of scripting a Halle Berry movie, you’d best avoid using that word “old” with “woman.” So Buddhakan shows her contempt with “You’re DONE, Betty White!”
If she’s not “done,” Jackie’s got more distractions than she ever bargained for. Her drunken brute of a lover isn’t happy to not be managing her. And he really flips out when Jackie mother (Adriane Lenox, hatefully good) rolls up on her and drops off a little boy of six (Danny Boyd Jr.), reminds her that he’s her son and says the kid’s dad is out of the picture. Oh, and he’s silent. Manny doesn’t talk.
“This ain’t my mess, it’s YOUR mess! For once in your life, HANDLE your business!”
With promoter Immaculate imagining a title fight and live-in-lover Desi getting “physical,” with a kid who won’t speak needing to be enrolled in school and an aging body that needs to be training-montaged into condition, what IS Jackie Justice to do?
Read the character descriptions above and guess. No, not all of them behave according to ancient, tried-and-true screenplay tropes. But the surprises are as obvious as a roundhouse punch in “Bruised.”
Berry has always relished chances to dress down. Her breakout Spike Lee film had one of the cinema’s great beauties transformed into a haggard junky. She won the Oscar for “Monster’s Ball.” She isn’t bad as Jackie Justice. She’s just obvious, like the character’s cornball name.
Atim has a striking, imposing screen presence and is the most impressive member of the supporting cast. But stage and screen veteran Stephen McKinley (“Fences”) makes his mark as everybody’s fight-picture favorite, the “cornerman.”
The short fights are brutal, the final brawl never-quite as epic as we’re meant to think. Are we supposed to see the fighters throwing air punches out of fatigue, or is the punch choreography that far down the “protect the star’s good looks at all costs” rabbit hole?
Not to pick on Berry’s reputation, but you have to think a supporting player who boxes and draws blood, by accident, would pay an awful price if the blooded one was La Berry. She could make a bit player disappear faster than a Chinese tennis star.
In a season of over-long movies, “Bruised” plays long largely because of all the added wrinkles screenwriter Michelle Rosenfarb throws in. The fact that to a one, they’re all non-starters points us at the real shortcoming of “Bruised.” It’s on the printed page.
Rating: R, pervasive language, some sexual content/nudity and violence.
Cast: Halle Berry, Sheila Atim, Adan Canto, Shamier Anderson, Adriane Lenox and Stephen McKinley
Credits: Directed by Halle Berry, scripted by Michelle Rosenfarb. A Netflix release.
Running time: 2:09