Halle Berry has long been a talented, emotional performer whose films do not always reflect her talent. After her debut in Spike Lees Jungle fever in 1991, Berry – still the only black woman to ever win the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role – cycled through various phases, genres and franchises in her next decades in this industry. Dramatic films often seem uncertain about what to do with her beauty, while genre roles that rely on her sensuality often diminish her other talents. Swordfish and Die another day made her a pinup but did not give her much else to do until she was standing around in lingerie. The X-Men franchise and the loose DC Comics Catwoman adjustment let her kick ass, but asked almost nothing to her dramatically.
There are exceptions, as it is wonderfully complex Cloud Atlas and the voltage in locked spaces The call, but all too often, Berry’s performances surpass the films they’ve been found in. And Berry’s latest, her directorial debut, Suggested, is another disappointing post in her uneven filmography.
In his role in the Netflix movie as mixed martial arts fighter Jackie Justice trying to fight back in the MMA octagon, Berry’s vulnerability and physical gravel are compelling and impressive. Berry’s eyes have always been her most expressive features, and her reactions here let viewers into everything she feels: her resignation at her fall from competitive sports and her consequent unemployment and homelessness, her shock at someone from her past returning, her determination during endless training sequences, her fragility in a romantic moment. She finds Jackies – wait for it – suggested center and pours into the part. This is the inflexible Berry from John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, and the emotionally open Berry from Cloud Atlas, and the Offended Berry from Monsters bold. Jackie asks Berry to take advantage of countless layers of achievement, and she takes us there.
But Michelle Rosenfarb’s script serves her so poorly, relying on cliché after cliché about family trauma, sexual abuse and self-hatred. Suggested quickly falls victim to an insoluble imbalance. The portrait, it paints of the life of blacks, is so dependent on violence, abandonment, and cruelty that it moves toward violation in its inability to give any joy, self-awareness, or fellowship. Berry states what this script requires of her, but it does so much that Jackie at some point is no longer a character. She’s a message of survival, and although it’s a cornerstone of narrative tools for underdog sports movies, Suggested does not update or energize a well-worn formula.
Jackie Justice is a former up-and-coming UFC star whose 10-0 run ended when she literally ran out of the octagon in the middle of a fight. (The film waits more than an hour and a half to explain this self-sabotaging choice.) In the four years since Jackie fled the fight and left her career, she has fallen to the bottom. She lives with her emotionally and physically violent manager and boyfriend Desi (Adan Canto), gets out of shape and drinks too much and continues a feud with her negligent mother Angel (Adriane Lenox). She’s tired of people approaching her on the street and pulling up in the viral video of the moment, so many have perceived it as cowardly, and she’s tired of not having a purpose.
Two major life events occur that can either get Jackie back on track or end her dreams for her. The first is that she gets the attention of Immaculate (Shamier Anderson), the stylish leader of Invicta FC, the biggest female MMA league. He thinks she can make a comeback if she works hard enough and he connects her with his top coach, Buddhakan. (Sheila Atim’s best line reading may be her mortal, dubious “She is old”When he sees Jackie in the gym for the first time.) Meanwhile, Angel ceremoniously dumps Jackie’s estranged 6-year-old son Manny (Danny Boyd Jr.) on Desi and Jackie’s doorstep. Jackie has not seen Manny since he was a baby. Manny, after witnessing his father’s murder, refuses to speak. And Desi is cruel and impatient with this new addition to their lives. How will Jackie and Manny bond, and how will Jackie restart her career?
Suggested‘s answers are quite predictable and they involve knowing yourself, failing your walls and letting other people in. The writing is not remarkable, and some of the scenes are so grueling and cumbersome that they practically scream “for your price consideration.” (In one, Manny and Jackie cry and embrace in the middle of the street after hearing “Just the Two of Us” play on a corner stereo.)
But most performance is solid. Boyd is the film’s moral compass, with a thoughtful reactive performance that does not need to speak to communicate its conscience. Atim and Berry have a believable chemistry, and the former also demonstrates familiar comfort with Stephen McKinley Henderson, in a too-small role as coach Pops, who has good comic timing with Boyd as Manny. But it’s hard to come up with unique moments for any of these actors with a script that is as dependent on hopelessness as character development and gloom as world-building.
Probably the only way Suggested attempts to stand out are by its focus on MMA. The sport’s popularity has been steadily rising since the 1990s and has since grown noticeably since 2019, when ESPN acquired exclusive television rights to UFC fights and began regularly broadcasting major match cards in the lead times of Saturday night. The headlines that capture the jokes of characters like UFC President Dana White (who invited former President Donald Trump to various fights) and its biggest stars, including Conor McGregor (whose recent series of legal questions have presumably overshadowed his uneven fight record), have also become extended MMA’s appeal.
MMA is its own unique world, a messy swamp of legally exciting athletics and often horrific treatment of fighters by their governing bodies. The mainstream audience got a glimpse of it with the 2011 Gavin O’Connor film Warrior. Suggested, which proclaims the UFC as the top level of MMA and has its various official logos and iconography, dares not question the organization’s (often dubious) business practices or (sometimes racist) marketing pleasures. For viewers who are aware of these atrocities, it is a little strange to watch Suggested present the greatness of the UFC in such a flashy way.
That kind of two-step backward thinking about the UFC is a sign of Berry’s overall directorial approach. She exposed herself through a legally grueling physical transformation to play a flyweight MMA challenger, but her visual approach often fails to capture this sport: too fast clips that interrupt the flow of action, or skewed compositional angles that undermine the efforts of her training montages . Both Jackie’s training center in Newark and the location of her last fight in Atlantic City feel strangely small, without any of the embodied sensations of right places – viewers are not going to smell sharp sweat or taste coppery blood during scenes that should be alive and in the moment.
Suggested generally lacks the kind of immersion that a story like this requires. It wants us to step in with Jackie and stay with her, experience her pain and her triumph, but it makes the journey from dressing room to octagon unbelievably long. Even a slight reversal of the constantly tragic state Berry commits to would have made a difference, but as it is, the film fails to land a KO.
Bruised is currently available in limited cinema release and will debut on Netflix on November 24th.