Despite its goofy (but true!) premise and slaloming into every single racing movie trope, Neill Blomkamp's flick remains an energetic, root-for-the-underdog speedball of fun.
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“Gran Turismo” probably doesn’t have any business being as enjoyable as it is. It’s a movie based on a video game (sort of) and slaloms through every single racing film trope you’ve ever heard of. It’s even centered on European racing, and Americans seem stubbornly attached to our “four left turns” style. (Outside of IndyCar, of course.) Personally, I don’t care for their squat, insectoid-looking cars.
And yet, it’s undeniably an energetic, root-for-the-underdog speedball of fun.
The premise is ridiculously goofy, and yet also true. Nissan partners with Sony Playstation, maker of the titular video game series, to select the best gamers in the world to compete in actual race car driving. The theory is that these much-derided geeks have actually amassed endless practice time and know the tracks by heart from playing the hyper-realistic Gran Turismo games.
Or rather, “racing simulation,” as the players and creator Kazunori Yamauchi (who appears as himself) prefer to call it.
Orlando Bloom, with a snakelike smile and oily hair, plays Danny Moore, the Nissan marketing guy who comes up with the idea of turning gamers into drivers. (All movie marketing guys are charming cads.) He manages to convince the Sony people to partner on the project, with the proviso that he finds a legit chief engineer to lead the selection of a winning driver who will be given a chance to compete in real races.
David Harbour plays Jack Salter, the prototypical cynical former driver who burned out and is now eking out an existence as a mechanic for Capa, the biggest and smarmiest racing team. They even wrap all their cars in bright gold colors to flaunt their success. Their lead driver, Nicholas Capa (Josha Stradowski), has an extremely punchable face and will serve as the primary villain.
Jack doesn’t want the chief job, but has had it up to here with the Capa folks and embraces the chance to try something daring and foolish. He goes into the training of the 10 GT Academy drivers, selected by winning a special simulation race, with the challenge that he doesn’t think any of them are good enough to pilot a real race car.
Our protagonist is Jann Mardenborough, a 19-year-old Welsh kid from Cardiff who does little but play Gran Tuismo sims. Portrayed by Archie Madekwe, he’s tall, awkward and unsure of himself, except when playing the game. He even breaks conventional wisdom by finding faster lines on the tracks than the “ideal” ones the game suggests.
With a based-on-true screenplay by Jason Hall and Zach Baylin, the first half of the movie is all training and building bonds, while the second half is Jann’s first few races. He needs to come in at least fourth in one of seven preliminary races to earn his FIA license and get a contract from Nissan.
The story wraps up with him competing in the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans, perhaps the most grueling race there is, which has been featured in any number of movies includng 2019’s excellent “Ford v Ferrari.”
Harbour and Madekwe make for a nice mentor-pupil relationship. They start off in a place where neither really believes in the other, or themselves. Over time they build confidence in their partnership and that starts to translate on the track. Harbour takes what could be a one-note throwaway role and makes it sing.
This contrasts with Jann’s dad, played by Djimon Hounsou, who dotes on his other son’s rising football career and constantly derides Jann’s Turismo playing as just a waste of time. Millions of fathers have said this to millions of kids, and historically it’s been true. But now there are lots of people making big money playing video games or, in Jann’s case, translating their skills to non-simulations.
Geri Halliwell aka Ginger Spice plays his mom, and dang doesn’t that make me feel old. Maeve Courtier-Lilley has some charming moments as Jann’s love interest but isn’t given a lot to do but smile fetchingly and encourage. Darren Barnet plays Jann’s primary opponent at the academy, a cocky American.
The racing action is tremendously thrilling, making use of fancy camera work, CGI and overlays of the game simulation. Jann sees the track the same way he does in the game, with helpful lines showing the best point of attack for passing and even pointers to let us know who’s in what car.
“Gran Turismo” held the potential to be a really horrid movie. Video games usually don’t translate well to the screen — I still shudder thinking about that “Need for Speed” flick. And rather than avoid the clichés of racing films it actually leans into them. You just know there’s going to be a big crash and setback, for instance, without me telling you.
But the truth is I had a blast watching this flick. I’m sure a bunch of executives are hoping it will spur sales of the video games, but mostly it made me want to do a few donuts in the theater parking lot.