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Review: In directorial debut, Halle Berry is ‘Bruised’ inside and out

The Los Angeles Times is committed to reviewing new theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries inherent risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the CDC and local health officials. We will continue to note the various ways readers can see each new film, including drive-in theaters in the Southland and VOD/streaming options when available.

Early in “Bruised,” down-and-out Jackie seems to intentionally provoke a raging reaction from her much-larger boyfriend. The confrontation turns into vigorous, consensual sex. Out of context, that could be problematic. In context, it’s part of a no-punches-pulled portrait of a person limping around with some deep damage.

In her directorial debut, Oscar-winning actress Halle Berry plays Jackie Justice, a onetime UFC (mixed martial arts) champ whose will was broken in a devastating title loss. Four years later, she’s cleaning houses, hiding from notoriety and boozing it up as secretively as she can in her manager/boyfriend’s apartment. An unexpected incident proves she still has some fight, and she ends up working with a new trainer to get back in the ring. Then her past catches up with her: The young son she abandoned years ago is essentially left on her doorstep.

From there, “Bruised” hits most of the expected back-from-Palookaville beats, down to the training montage, the uncaring promoter and the late-developing romance. The deep wrinkle is the presence of the boy (played guilelessly by Danny Boyd Jr.), who hasn’t spoken since the murder of his father. He’s a walking reminder of every bad decision Jackie has made, but his silent need and her wrenching guilt add dramatic dimension to an otherwise familiar story.

There are many indications from the first minutes of “Bruised” that this won’t be a vanity project, in the sense that the director-star is not concerned with her glamorous image. Berry is looking for the grit under the fingernails, the ache of the contusions inside that won’t heal. Jackie is not OK. Some moments land with full force — usually ones centering on Manny, thanks to an empathy-inducing turn by Boyd. Others glance off, unfortunately — particularly a confrontation between Jackie and her mother in which secrets come gushing out of old wounds torn open. That scene has to crush it, but its grip slips.

As to Berry-as-MMA fighter, the results are mixed to positive. In key moments when others say they see the eye of the tiger in Jackie, there’s a hint of the timidity that seemed out of place in the actor‘s Ororo/Storm in the Bryan Singer “X-Men” movies. But when it comes to attacking the action, there’s nothing held back. The superb fight choreography and committed execution by the two women in the ring (real-life UFC champ Valentina Shevchenko is convincing as Jackie’s opponent), informed by Berry’s skill as an actor conveying Jackie’s desperation, make the final fight thrilling and cringe-inducing — in a good way.

Berry’s willingness to go to dark places and her generosity toward her cast — allowing each of them moments to shine — can only be promising signs for the burgeoning filmmaker.

‘Bruised’

Rated: R for pervasive language, some sexual content/nudity and violence
Running time: 2 hours, 9 minutes
Playing: At the Landmark Westwood, iPic Pasadena and other Los Angeles-area theaters Nov. 17; streaming on Netflix on Nov. 24

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