It’s difficult to call “Bruised” a passion project. Typically when an actor chooses material for their directorial debut, they gravitate toward a personal subject: It could be a childhood memory, or a formative book. With “Bruised,” a project initially attached to Nick Cassavetes, it’s never apparent what Berry finds fascinating about MMA. We certainly never learn anything about training, which is reduced here to a “Rocky”-inspired montage. The script tries to position Immaculate as a villain; he books Jackie as a name, meat that can be thrown away for a quick payday. But his motives are so opaque, you’re never quite sure if his machinations are all part of his galaxy-brained mind games or maliciously wrought. Lady Killer (Valentina Shevchenko), her opponent, isn’t introduced until the final quarter of the movie, thereby robbing the final fight of any drama.
Berry, as both an actor and director, burns the candles at both ends, ultimately, leaving both spheres in the dark. She lacks chemistry with everyone: The child never feels like her son (even distantly), her mother never feels like her mother, her love interests are deadwood atop a barely perceptible flame. Berry routinely overacts. As does, with the exception of Atim and a rarely utilized Stephen McKinley Henderson, the rest of the cast. The film’s cinematography by Frank G. DeMarco and Joshua Reis is an orange-tinged dirge, the kind of heavy handed over-serious lighting without any aesthetic pleasures that’s come to dominate modern filmmaking.
The title bout between Jackie and Lady Killer, the film’s very long climax, is rendered for shock and awes. The lively camera dances around the fighters, taking viewers deep into the action. But “Bruised” commits what’s a cardinal sin for any inspirational sports drama: It never establishes what Jackie is fighting for. Possibly her son. Possibly a modicum of self-respect. Maybe for love? We don’t know. They’re all seemingly on the table, and at the same time, not, making redemption more of a distant desire than a palpable goal. Likewise, Berry’s film doesn’t display a clear passion for the subject of MMA, rendering the sport with a generic gaze, nor a measured eye for pruning the copious subplots. “Bruised” barely leaves a mark.
In limited theatrical release today and on Netflix on November 24th.
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