Halle Berry’s directorial debut Bruised sees her take on the role of a disgraced mixed martial arts fighter – and her performance lands a resounding punch.
In a world where all the small screen entertainment our hearts could possibly desire is merely a click away, an indie sports drama might not immediately sound like it should shoot straight to the top of your must-watch list.
And on paper, a Netflix movie about a burned-out mixed martial arts fighter might not scream compulsive viewing – were it not for the fact that this one stars none other than Academy Award winner Halle Berry. Nearly 20 years after she became the first and only Black woman to win a Best Actress Oscar for her performance as a grief-stricken waitress in Monster’s Ball, Berry is still packing a punch with her acting – quite literally, in the case of her latest venture, Bruised.
The movie, which also marks Berry’s directorial debut, tells the story of Jackie Justice, a former Ultimate Fighting Championship star who leaves the sport in disgrace after a crushing defeat. Instead of pulling punches in the ring, Jackie is now working a day job scrubbing toilets in a wealthy neighbourhood in New Jersey – a job she promptly loses when she beats up her bratty employee’s son and smashes his phone after he films her getting changed.
It’s clear Jackie is a time bomb of rage and regret. Back home, she’s drinking liquor hidden in a detergent bottle and arguing continuously her abusive boyfriend-manager Desi (Adan Canto). Later, he drives her to an unsanctioned underground fight where she’s goaded into taking on the winner – a formidable fighter named Werewolf. Jackie is loath to fight, but after getting harassed, she makes light work of dispatching her opponent, grabbing the attention of a fight league promoter named Immaculate (Shamier Anderson) in the process. He offers her a life back in the UFC if she agrees to fight in his league, to which she reluctantly agrees.
Things get complicated, though, when her mother Angel (Adriane Lenox) shows up at home with a surprise: Manny (Danny Boyd, Jr.), the 6-year-old son whom Jackie gave up for adoption as an infant. Her mother gloatingly informs her that Manny’s father is dead, and the boy is now Jackie’s responsibility – something she is wholly unprepared for, not least because Manny is severely traumatised and refuses to speak. She eyes the boy like a creature from another planet, utterly clueless about the realities of caring for a child.
Meanwhile, when Jackie shows up at the MMA training facility, she’s in for a rude awakening. Bobbi “Buddhakan” Berroa (Sheila Atim) puts her through her paces with a punishing regime, revealing that her new recruit is badly out of shape. But Jackie is ready to fight for a last chance, and starts applying herself properly to get back her form. She bins the booze, turns up for training on time, and practices like a woman on a mission. At the same time, she also goes about reconciling with Manny, enrolling him in school and taking on parental responsibilities for the first time.
The stakes are raised, however, when Immaculate offers Jackie a chance to fight the reigning UFC Women’s Flyweight Champion, Lady Killer (played by Valentina Shevchenko, the real-life UFC Women’s Flyweight Champion). Cue a brutal no-holds-barred fight which leaves no one in any doubt that Jackie Justice is far from done.
Viewers, of course, will be hooked by Berry’s turn as a comeback fighter. We all know Berry is drop-dead beautiful, but her transformation in the film is remarkable. Bar her pre-match appearance, she spends most of the film sporting cuts, bruises and bulging black eyes, while her commitment to the stunts will leave you out of breath just watching them. Berry reportedly immersed herself in jujitsu, judo, taekwondo and kickboxing for three years, even breaking two ribs in the process after taking a knee to the chest from co-star Shevchenko. And you can’t fail to be wowed by her physicality, especially one powerful scene in which Jackie furiously pummels a punching bag in the gym.
It’s also refreshing to see Berry’s skills at work in the director’s chair, particularly the tender, sensual scene between Jackie and her love interest Buddhakan. “I’ve been in love scenes where I’ve had zero control, so it was a really good feeling knowing that I would be in control of it,” Berry previously told USA Today. “And that was really important for me to make sure that the actors knew that they could trust me. There’s nothing worse than to agree on something, and then you see the film and you go, ‘Oh, wait, that’s not what they told me it would be like.’”
It should also be noted that the script for Bruised, written by newcomer Michelle Rosenfarb, originally conceived Jackie Justice as a 21-year-old white Irish Catholic fighter, with Blake Lively attached to star. What a stroke of genius that Berry helped reimagine the character as a Black, middle-aged fighter on a quest for redemption, and put herself in the director’s chair. Having said that felt like she was at a point in her career where she had to bet on herself, Bruised proves that Berry’s risk unequivocally paid off.
Bruised premieres on Netflix today.
Christobel Hastings is Stylist's Entertainment Editor whose specialist interests include pop culture, LGBTQ+ identity and lore.