Why it’s so hard to make a good MMA movie, and why Halle Berry’s “Bruised” ain’t it

Here’s the thing I still don’t understand even after watching all two hours and ten minutes of “Bruised” on Netflix over the holiday weekend. Why did Halle Berry want to make an MMA movie? What did she feel like she wanted to say about this sport or the people in it?

There must have been something, right? At least initially. Berry made her debut as a director with this film, and she cast herself in the lead role, even though that meant asking the audience to ignore the fact that she’s 55 years old and playing an elite athlete who is meant to be roughly two decades younger. I guess it could be that she just loves MMA and the martial arts that much – she has been hanging around in the front row at UFC events for a while now – but physically she never once manages to look even halfway credible as an MMA fighter in this film, even with the benefit of slick editing and stunt choreography.

That sounds harsher than I want it to. Plenty of actors, even ones closer to their physical primes, have tried and failed to pass themselves off as believable athletes on film. When it comes to delivering lines and evoking a character just with her eyes alone, Berry is still really, really good. So is co-star Sheila Atim, who is probably the best thing about this movie in her role as the mystical, mysterious coach “Buddhakan.”

But what Berry has given us here is a meandering, unfocused mess of a film that seems like it’s constantly introducing new subplots and then immediately abandoning them, so that by the end it’s hard to tell what she thought this was a story about.

There are lots of good movies about boxing and/or boxers. From the true boxing movies (“Rocky”), to the ones with boxing somewhere in the background (“On The Waterfront”), to the biopics (“Raging Bull”), it’s been fertile ground for generations of filmmakers. For some reason, MMA hasn’t been the same.

For a while we could tell ourselves that it was just too new a sport, that its “Rocky” was still out there waiting to be made. One of the few positives about “Bruised” is at least shows us that MMA is now mainstream enough that you can make a movie about it without ever stopping the entire plot to explain the rules or how it all works.

Still, when you sit down to make a list of good film/TV representations of MMA, it’s pretty much the 2011 film “Warrior” and the Byron Balasco TV series “Kingdom” – and nothing else even worth mentioning. Revisiting them now, “Warrior” feels like it’s more a commentary on the crushing forces of American capitalism around the time of the Great Recession, while “Kingdom” feels like a show that wanted to get deep into the weeds of the MMA world (and did so more accurately and effectively than anything before or since), but knew it had to sprinkle in a family soap opera just to stay on the air.

“Bruised,” on the other hand, should have been a new opportunity to say something about women’s MMA, which is really its own world nestled inside the larger MMA ecosystem. There were points in the film where it felt close to confronting big topics like domestic violence, sexual assault, and the whole idea of working through personal trauma via organized and sanctioned violence. But in trying to do too much, bouncing between one subplot after another, cutting each one off before it did anything with it, the film ended up doing very little.

The decision to use the real-life Invicta FC brand, but replace its female president Shannon Knapp with a cardboard cutout of a fight promoter named “Immaculate” who’s just a stack of unclear motives, suggested that the movie didn’t really want to say anything about this world after all. And making Valentina Shevchenko into this film’s Apollo Creed, but making no effort to develop the character at all, left the climactic fight scene feeling like one big sports movie cliche.

That’s disappointing, but is it really surprising? I doubt many of us heard that Halle Berry had chosen herself to star in an MMA movie she was directing and thought, ‘well here comes our “Rocky.”’ But then, maybe we’re also part of the problem. It’s hard to make a movie that caters to the MMA fanbase because: a) there aren’t that many of us, compared with other major sports, and b) we tend to be overly protective dicks about this thing we love. In order to be successful, an MMA film has to appeal to a broader audience, which often means leaning hard on sports movie cliches, as “Bruised” does in the end.

So what’s it going to take for someone to get this world right while also having something interesting to say about it? I’m not sure I know. But I have to think it is possible. It’ll just take someone with a clearer vision and more disciplined, efficient story to work with. Maybe it’ll even have to come in biopic form, assuming someone out there still has the guts to give us a warts-and-all portrait of some fighter and not the just-make-me-look-cool version that we get in fighter autobiographies.

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