Gran Turismo is a video game adaptation that is somehow not actually based on the iconic racing simulator. First released in 1997, the game has accumulated a huge fan base, including players who have logged thousands of hours of driving time. But instead of making a fictional movie set in the world of racing, Sony has developed one about real-life player Jann Mardenborough, who became a professional race car driver thanks to Nissan’s GT Academy. It’s an odd, meta choice that may confuse some viewers, even if the resulting film is reasonably entertaining.
GRAN TURISMO ★★1/2 (2.5/4 stars)
Archie Madekwe plays Jann, an English teenager growing up in Wales. He works in a department store and spends most of his time logging hours on Gran Turismo. His dad Steve (Djimon Hounsou) wants Jann to get his life together and to be more like his soccer star brother Cai (Daniel Puig). His mom, played by Spice Girl Geri Halliwell Horner, just wants everyone to get along. When Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom, going full sleaze), a marketing exec at Nissan, comes up with the idea to train Gran Turismo players as actual race car drivers, Jann’s high score gets him first in line.
The story is partially true. Danny is based on Darren Cox, who founded the GT Academy in 2008, although some of the timeline has changed (Jann was not the academy’s first winner, as is portrayed in the film). In fact, the events of the film, which likely stretched over several years in reality, feel compressed into about two weeks. But the pace allows director Neill Blomkamp to fully immerse the viewer in Jann’s journey as he struggles through GT Academy with the help of the salty trainer Jack Salter (David Harbour) and then goes on to race professionally. The story flashes through several races, including the harrowing Nürburgring Nordschleife and the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans, following a fairly traditional—and predictable—sports movie formula.
The races themselves are where Blomkamp thrives. He draws the audience into the driver’s seat, often giving you the viewpoint of a game player, and swoops the camera around the race track with gusto and flair. The soundtrack and sound design pulsate with chaotic energy, which adds to the excitement and tension. The speed is palpable and the sense of drama heightened, so you believe the stakes for Jann and his fellow racing drivers (the real Mardenborough stood in as Madekwe’s stunt double).
The scenes off the track are less exciting. Jann’s fledgling relationship with Audrey (Maeve Courtier-Lilley) feels pointless—and, in fact, no female character exists with any real purpose except to support the men. The mentor-mentee vibe between Jann and Jack is slightly better, although Harbour’s performance isn’t far off what he already did in Stranger Things. Blomkamp finally achieves real emotional gravity towards the end, as Jann and his father have a long-awaited reckoning, but it’s not quite enough.
As sports biopic, Gran Turismo is solid. As a video game adaptation, it feels like some of the key elements still haven’t downloaded. There are flashes of Gran Turismo’s game play throughout, including as Jann drives, but mostly it feels like product placement. If you don’t leave the theater wanting to buy a Nissan or a PlayStation or even a vintage Sony Walkman, well, you probably weren’t playing close enough attention. A good video game adaptation, like The Last of Us, immerses us in a world that is familiar without making it feel like a really long advertisement. Gran Turismo, despite its human narrative, wants you to buy something. The movie can’t really be about Jann because it’s so corporate and shiny and full of logos. Still, it’s nice to have Blomkamp back in the driver’s seat. Hopefully next time he picks a vehicle he can truly make his own.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.