While there’s little room for breaking the rules in a racing simulation video game, there is room to improvise. I have rules regarding video games being adapted into movies – it’s to not get excited for them. There’s been just too much disappointment, which has continued to stretch into even recent years. However, I did find room to be intrigued by the approach to Gran Turismo, the best-selling racing franchise from Sony PlayStation. Rather than add a fictional new dimension to an established console game, an insane yet relatable true story was the basis for this film’s narrative. Wouldn’t you know it – it worked. While it may not be opening new lanes on the track, a sturdy base combined with confident filmmaking helps bring this take on Gran Turismo across the finish line.
Orlando Bloom plays marketing executive Danny Moore (inspired by motorsport executive Darren Cox). He’s come up with an idea to have Nissan sponsor a professional racing academy for the top Gran Turismo players in the world. Moore hires former racer Jack Salter (David Harbour) to train these kids, although Jack’s incredible reluctance is well-noted. But who among these gamers can actually make it into the big leagues?
Enter Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe), a young adult from Cardiff, Wales, who has made it his goal to become a professional racecar driver. This is much to the chagrin of his father (Djimon Hounsou, delivering far more than necessary, as usual), but how much drama can we really take from this aspect of the story when every poster for this film assures us that Jann will at least make it past the tryouts for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity? That’s the trick director Neill Blomkamp finds himself working to pull off throughout this film’s lengthy 134-minute runtime.
Stepping away from sci-fi/horror films such as District 9 and Elysium (and there’s no sign of Chappie in this film either), perhaps it’s the sense of control akin to a professional driver that allowed Blomkamp to recharge the engines and put together something more than just a little competent this time around. Working from a script by Jason Hall (American Sniper) and Zach Baylin (King Richard, Creed III), it feels clear that a foundation was put in place that feels akin to any number of sports movies with traditional arcs. Yes, that means there’s little room for narrative surprise, but the film counters by investing us enough with the characters who matter most and the ample amounts of race footage.
This is also a video game movie that doesn’t forget its origins. While Gran Turismo is in no way fantastical or even heightened enough to allow the film to deliver cute easter eggs, Blomkamp is clearly having fun melding cinema and the gaming environment. On-screen displays inform the audience of what’s taking place and resemble the gaming experience. Cameras are sometimes locked down behind a vehicle to provide that third-person perspective while racing. Even the attempts to distinguish racers through unique colors and their exotic cars let the film embrace its console counterpart.
District 9 showed audiences a filmmaker who took the right lessons when it came to blending elaborate visual effects in a grounded reality (and say what you will about his follow-up films, but they certainly don’t look bad). Gran Turismo doesn’t require as much CG flourishes, but the emphasis on actual stunt driving allows the use of further enhancements to feel relatively seamless. Not hurting is having the real-life Jann serve as Madekwe’s racing stunt double.
With that in mind, Madekwe makes for a fine lead here. It’s an up-and-coming rookie role, so the path to success in this part has been seen plenty of times before, but he displays the confidence needed here. Similarly, Harbour playing the latest iteration of a gruff coach works as well as necessary because the actor hits the beats with his own sort of attitude. Bloom is a bit trickier, as the film badly calls for his character to be more complicated (i.e., shady). Still, it resists given, y’know, reality. Perhaps I’m too used to how things play out in these sorts of films.
The first half of Gran Turismo spends time building character and providing the training portions to get the viewer used to this set of performers and the idea of a gamer becoming a driver. As the film is already too long, I can only imagine there was even more stuff here that was removed at the expense of other supporting players. This is a way of saying the film takes its time to really get its tires spinning, but once Jann starts hitting the track more frequently, there’s a lot of excitement to be had in these racing sequences.
Never a bad thing to see a video game movie actually deliver on feeling like the game, which has somehow been a hard concept for many of these films to figure out (looking right at you, Max Payne). With Gran Turismo, I’m no gearhead, but I had fun watching Jann figure out how to get through these races, seeing specific strategies play out, and enjoying the globetrotting nature of a racing tour (regardless of how many of these cities the actors actually got to go to). It was even nice to see Blomkamp make solid use of drone cameras to capture the cars in action. He’s no Michael Bay (who is?), but the attempt was appreciated.
I had fun with this film. It was easy enough to get caught in the drama of it all, as formulas tend to be repeated due to them working. That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement. However, given how lazy so many of these video game adaptations are, it’s refreshing to see Blomkamp making cinematic choices amid a film that will only further propel the capitalistic goal of selling more games (and other Sony products), let alone cars. With that said, this movie is hardly as cynical as all that, which is refreshing. Gran Turismo primarily wants to tell Jann’s story and let the viewers spend plenty of time on the track.