Gran Turismo review

Films based on video games can be a hard sell. Often it’s difficult to get what made the game great to translate into a cinematic medium, causing numerous flops over the decades. Sony wisely sidesteps this issue with ‘Gran Turismo’, a film based on the popular game sorry racing simulator franchise by taking a step back from the source material itself and seeking to depict a real-life story with a clearer narrative.

It tells the story of Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe), a gamer from the U.K., and his dream of becoming a real GT driver. Jann is in luck when Nissan marketing executive Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom) starts a racing academy aimed specifically at the best gamers. Jann is desperate to prove to himself and everyone else that he can succeed, overcoming rivals and several setbacks, both physical and emotional.

Stylistically, this film is a joy to look at. Neill Blomkamp brings his signature touch to the film, using sweeping camera shots from above to capture the scale of what’s going on and inject life into the shots. He overlays video game graphics over the race track to unionize the game and real life, an organic way to bring the two together. The use of the racing line is a touch that really adds to the audience’s understanding of what’s going on, as it can be sometimes hard to understand who might be quicker on an overtake.

Films that carry the “based on a true story” tag on them don’t often mean in the most literal sense. Hollywood is known for its dramatization and ‘Gran Turismo’ is no exception. But in this case, the dramatization only makes the film more boring, filling it with all the clichés in the book. The working class hero rising up against the elite, the hardened mentor who actually has a soft side along with more.

Josha Stradowski’s Nicholas Capa and Maeve Courtier-Lilley’s Audrey fair particularly bad here, as they’re just stock rival and love interest characters with nothing else to do. Though Stradowski does the job well of looking very hateable in the film, and his hatred of Jan is very extreme. It reflects how the other racers feel about Jann, that they don’t believe a scrawny guy who has played video games his whole life belongs racing with them.

On the more egregious end of this dramatization is that the film takes events out of order from when they actually occurred in Jann’s life. In the film, Jann’s devastating crash at the Nürburgring happens early on in his career, and before the 24-hour race at Le Mans. But in real life, they happen the opposite way round, and years apart. It’s done to fit the traditional and rote structure of a story, but it’s a disservice to Mardenborough’s career and attempts to present real life like it has the narrative of a conventional story.

There is also a lot of promotion in this film, and not just from Bloom’s slimy marketing executive. Sony clearly wants to find more ‘Gran Turismo’ hopefuls as they slam the film full of ads for their racing sim, as well as the PlayStation brand. It’s very obvious and out of place, as if the audience needed a constant reminder that there is a product they can buy! If not for the stellar cast, the entire film might have been written off as a soulless marketing exercise.

But it’s the performances that save this film, along with the aforementioned style. Madekwe puts in a huge amount of work as Jann, showing the physical and mental stress of being a racer, something that often goes underappreciated. David Harbour gives a grizzled and angry performance as mentor Jack Salter, disbelieving that Moore’s scheme can work. It’s one that gradually softens up, and Harbour manages this transition well. Djimon Hounsou gives a heartfelt performance as Jann’s dad Steve Mardenborough, adding emotional depth to the character, especially toward the end of the film.

It’s hard not to walk away from ‘Gran Turismo’ without having enjoyed the film. But it also leaves viewers with a sense that if it had told a less predictable story that it did it would have been much better. Madekwe, Harbour, and Hounsou, all give stellar performances that help liven up an overly safe script. Blomkamp adds his style and flair to the film, which also helps improve it. Without any of this, the movie would have just been a mindless marketing piece for both the sport and the racing simulator.

Images via Sony Pictures.

Kieran Burt

My name is Kieran and I am based in the UK. I love writing about all things science fiction and fantasy, particularly Star Wars and Marvel. When I’m not writing or watching anything sci-fi related, you can probably find me exploring the open worlds of alternate lands through my Xbox.

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