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Halle Berry’s directorial debut

At the end of every year, you can almost smell the desperation of films angling for Oscar nods. Some of them are made with an eye on juries that are inclined towards destitution porn – and an Academy who rewards art that sweats the hardest. They play on the age-old misconception about great filmmaking: that the suffering needs to be visible. No narrative cliche is spared in pursuit of guilting the average white voter into submission. Bruised is the epitome of this culturally precise formula. It’s all there: a physically demanding role, a veteran performer’s directorial debut, Black America, a gloomy visual palette, a graphic sex scene, a queer arc, a history of abuse, a mute child, and most of all, a brutal sport in which athletes break and bleed the most. The agony of Bruised is so apparent that Million Dollar Baby could be the DJ of this pity party.

The problem is the sheer number of gritty-critical-acclaim tropes packed into a single film, as though this were Berry’s only chance to get behind the camera. She plays a disgraced MMA fighter named Jackie Justice, who is hit with the abrupt arrival of a previously adopted six-year-old son just as she’s planning a return to the ring. Thus begins a game of musical chairs between her personal struggles and professional comeback.

Now that you’ve read the premise, visualise it based on every boxing/martial arts/generic sports movie you’ve ever seen and you’d be dead right. The “how” goes exactly how one might imagine: Jackie is noticed in an unsanctioned basement brawl by a founder of a flashy tournament; she is given a second shot out of nowhere; she finds her son Manny sitting at her doorstep in the rain; she bonds with Manny by protecting him from her toxic manager-cum-boyfriend; she bonds with her new trainer, a serene lesbian named Bobbi ‘Buddhakan’ (Sheila Atim), through her single-mother spirit. Driving home the manicured darkness of Jackie’s journey is the fact that her kid Manny does not speak – not a word – due to some deep-set trauma. (You just know that he’ll say that elusive word in the end, don’t you?). Jackie also has a sarcastic, semi-estranged mother with a substance abuse problem. Have I missed anything? I think that’s everything.

Somewhere along the way, Jackie trains, stumbles and builds herself back to championship form for a climactic title bout whose resolution is so predictable that Rocky would call the cops. The action in the ring doesn’t look all that convincing either – what with the dramatically familiar rhythm of the fight – even if Halle Berry looks to be training like a proper athlete. Her muscles, though, can’t carry a film that’s aching to be admired for its workout schedule.

It doesn’t help that, in the buildup to the fight, the other crutches of the story – the son, the lover – conveniently disappear for a while (like the brothers’ father, played by Nick Nolte, did in Warrior during their title bout). At first, I thought maybe this is a novel way to approach the lone-wolf film. The loneliness and selfishness of such protagonists are often eschewed in favour of cinematic circularity: romance, parenthood, adulthood. But in Bruised, there comes a point when Jackie even admits that she has no choice but to do it on her own, without any help or distractions. This is authentic in a way, even if it doesn’t make for natural entertainment. So the film itself blocks out the peripheral noise – nearly eliminating the other characters – to let Jackie concentrate on her own reckoning. But this is also me giving Bruised too much credit. Because the bottom line is that the writing simply seems unsure of what to do with the other dimensions when the spotlight is in the ring. Not to mention how awkward it looks when the film suddenly “forgets” its faces and changes track. It’s similar to an actor not knowing how to move when they’re off-camera and being spoken to. That the characters are eventually brought back – after Jackie has her sappy moment – only proves that the film was never out to subvert any popular perceptions.

I’m actually quite amazed that Halle Berry shows so much conviction in Michelle Rosenfarb’s stale screenplay. Other than the long-overdue newness of a female-driven brawler story, I’m not sure what else she noticed about Bruised that made her so wholeheartedly back the project. Her film-making is far from average, but it’s derivative, which can be worse than average in two-hour-plus sports dramas. As Jackie, however, she does leave it all in the ring. She acts hard, harder and hardest, striving to break both bones and gender stereotypes. Yet, it might be an unpopular opinion to state that this doesn’t necessarily translate into a smart performance. We feel her blood, sweat and tears alright. But her portrait of womanhood is painted in the colours of a pre-existing training montage. It’s like she wants us to recognise her effort rather than see her art in a new light.

Bruised, in that sense, is the oldest trick in the book. By virtue of being a tough production, it aims to be perceived as a raw movie. But all it really ends up being is a dull remix of doggedness, not doggedness itself. After all, the recycling of waste is good, but the recycling of goodness is often waste.

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