Instead of being based directly on a video game, the live-action film draws from a true story in which Gran Turismo happens to play a central role. Even this year’s Tetris movie, which went down a similar biopic-style route, ended up focusing on the creators of the game rather than those influenced by it. Suffice it to say, Gran Turismo has an intriguing premise, and it’s one that the film mines to mostly successful results.
Directed by South African-Canadian filmmaker Neill Blomkamp (District 9), Gran Turismo follows the life of Jann Mardenborough (Midsommar‘s Archie Madekwe), a young Englishman who went from avid Gran Turismo player to actual race car driver. How did he do it? That’s where the Gran Turismo Academy, a highly competitive Sony-Nissan training program that ran from 2008 to 2016, comes in.
The film plays loose with that timeline, though; while Mardenborough’s stint at the GT Academy was centred around the PS3 game Gran Turismo 5 in 2011, the cinematic version of events sees him playing last year’s Gran Turismo 7 on a PS5. In this way, Sony does a fair amount of product placement, and even more than you’d expect given the subject matter, particularly with a running bit involving a Walkman.That’s a relatively minor issue, though, and it’s certainly not to say the film isn’t without its charms. From the opening moments, we get to see Jann’s delight, as portrayed through a charming and likable Madekwe, as he plays Gran Turismo, and it feels earnest in a way that many films depicting gamers often don’t. It’s also here that Blomkamp uses inventive visual flourishes wherein a digital car materializes around Jann in his bedroom before pulling him onto the racetrack. The effect is admittedly a little goofy, but it’s undeniably a uniquely strong visual that effectively conveys the passionate young racer’s mental state.
Balancing Jann’s endearing pluckiness is David Harbour’s Jack Salter, Jann’s beleaguered trainer. While Jack is, in many ways, the sort of archetypal mentor figure — grizzled, cynical, and full of regrets — the Stranger Things star brings enough gravitas to make him feel more three-dimensional. Similarly, while you’ve undoubtedly seen Jann and Jack’s relationship in many other films, Madekwe and Harbour’s chemistry helps keep you invested in their dynamic. It makes up for Orlando Bloom’s manic energy as Nissan marketing exec Danny Moore (based on GT Academy founder Darren Cox), who often feels like he’s from a different movie altogether.
But while Harbour gets top billing in the film, it’s actually Djimon Hounsou who steals the show. Right from the start of the film, the prolific actor commands the screen as Jann’s father, Steve. As a former professional footballer, he struggles to understand Jann’s interests in video games, and that conflict serves as the beating heart of the film. There’s one touching and emotionally-charged scene, in particular, in which Madekwe and Hounsou deliver remarkably powerful performances, and it had me wishing the film devoted more time to that relationship.
Indeed, the film’s biggest issue is that it tries to take on too much, likely for the sake of creating a feature-length story. Early on, we’re introduced to a love interest for Jann named Audrey, played by Maeve Courtier-Lilley, whose role in the film feels thin and tacked on. Meanwhile, Jann meets a rival at GT Academy (Matty, played by Never Have I Ever‘s Darren Barnett), who likewise feels underwritten. It’s a shame that the filmmakers felt the need to throw in these extra elements because the core story of Jann trying to win his father’s approval works quite well when it’s given room to breathe.But even if the story is sometimes uneven and clichéd, Blomkamp’s direction remains strong throughout. In particular, he brings a level of energy to the races themselves, mixing high-tech drones for sweeping overhead shots and specialized in-car lenses for tight and immersive close-ups and POV perspectives. The real Mardenborough, who served as Madekwe’s stunt double, has also said that Blomkamp allowed for a level of freedom in the races, and that dynamic shows.
Ultimately, Gran Turismo stays fairly close to the sort of rags-to-riches sports movie framework you’d expect, filled with such tropes as the disapproving parent and world-weary mentor. But it’s also got heart, thanks in no small part to the unique subject matter and commendable performances from Madekwe, Harbour, and Hounsou. These are supported by Blomkamp’s solid direction, especially in the frenetic and engrossing race scenes. All in all, Gran Turismo is a good ride.
Gran Turismo is now playing in select theatres ahead of a wider release on August 25th.
For more on the film, check out our roundtable interview with Jann Mardenborough.
Image credit: Sony Pictures