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'Bruised' review: Halle Berry does double duty as director, star of Netflix movie

Halle Berry and Danny Boyd Jr. in "Bruised."

Halle Berry and Danny Boyd Jr. in "Bruised."   Credit: NETFLIX/JOHN BAER

MOVIE "Bruised"

WHERE Streaming on Netflix

WHAT IT’S ABOUT Halle Berry makes her directorial debut with "Bruised," a drama about a former mixed martial arts fighter faced with having to care for the young son she once abandoned while simultaneously finding a path back into the octagon.

The Oscar winner also stars as Jackie "Pretty Bull" Justice, unable to resume her MMA career years after a disastrous last fight. She’s living with her boyfriend and manager in Newark, New Jersey, finding the work she can cleaning houses while hiding alcohol in empty cleaning fluid bottles.

This trajectory starts to change with the re-emergence in her life of Manny (Danny Boyd Jr.), the six-year-old son she left when he was an infant. She’s forced to take custody of him after her ex-boyfriend, Manny’s father, is killed in a shooting.

Co-stars in the movie, now streaming on Netflix, include the great character actor Stephen McKinley Henderson (last seen in "Dune"), playing one of Jackie’s trainers.

MY SAY Berry shows real filmmaking talent in "Bruised," which is not always the case when A-list actors make the jump behind the camera, no matter how capably they can handle themselves in front of it. There is some dynamic visual storytelling on display in the ways she and cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco combine Jackie’s drab and unhappy present with hints of a promise of something better.

The director-star also demonstrates a sure hand in the ways she develops the mother-son relationship that provides the heart of the movie.

It begins at a low point — two strangers sizing each other up, and trying to make sense of unspeakable trauma. But even from that first moment, it’s always clear that there’s a special bond here, the sort of connection that only a mother can have with her child.

Berry develops this relationship in a patient way that relies on small and quiet moments, rather than sudden epiphanies. She challenges Boyd Jr., an actor who has already amassed an impressive resume ("Stranger Things," "The Underground Railroad" and more), because the magnitude of the horror Manny went through has rendered him unable to speak.

Images as subtle and familiar as mother and son falling asleep on each other at the movies are weighted with terrific emotional resonance because both actors so capably understand how to convey meaning in stillness.

But there’s too much going on throughout "Bruised," when the story demands a more consistently minimalist treatment.

The mother-son storyline gets set against other scenes that seem to have been ripped directly out of a soap opera, with people screaming at each other and breaking things, and weary clichés such as a moment in which one character breaks up with another in bed.

That’s all caked in an underdog sports movie — including the familiar training scenes, the climactic bout, and so many other genre staples.

You only wish Berry had simply trusted that the good stuff was good enough to carry the audience through.

BOTTOM LINE This is an auspicious directorial debut for Halle Berry, but it’s too overstuffed to be unequivocally recommended.

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