Watch our complete review above or read it below!
“This entire thing is a marketing extravaganza,” says Nissan marketing executive Danny Moore, played by Orlando Bloom. It’s a line that, intentionally or not, amusingly encapsulates a major aspect of Gran Turismo, a PlayStation Productions project that takes the bestselling video game franchise of the same name to the big screen.
The film is based on the true story of Jann Mardenborough (played by Archie Madekwe, See), a British guy who, at the age of 19, won the GT Academy. A big branding team-up between Nissan and Sony Interactive Entertainment, the GT Academy was a televised competition that offered some of the best Gran Turismo players in the world the opportunity to become a real-life professional racer. Under tutelage from no-nonsense former racer Jack Salter (played by a strong David Harbour), Jann tackles the competition, proves his simulation skills are indeed transferable to reality, and enters the very real, and very dangerous, world of racing.
Gran Turismo marks a bit of a change-up for director Neill Blomkamp, the South African filmmaker primarily known for science-fiction efforts such as District 9, Elysium, and Chappie. But while Blomkamp may be further away from the bigger sci-fi ideas of those titles, Gran Turismo still offers him another angle to look at a topic that’s long fascinated him: how humans are affected – for better or worse – by evolving technology. Of course, the car races had to have been an enticing element to get Blomkamp on board – and he clearly has fun on the tracks.If you’re here for some kickass car-racing sequences – you’re in good hands. Blomkamp and his team craft a number of tense races, delivering on the aim to put the viewer on the track. Slick direction, strong sound design, and smartly used CG effects accentuate the terrifying speeds these cars are going as they charge through a variety of circuits. I’m not really a car guy, but I do dig car action in cinema – and I had a good time with some of these race scenes.
It almost goes without saying, but this is a film that’s tailor-made for fans of the hit gaming franchise. I’m not a giant Gran Turismo aficionado either, although I do remember obsessively competing with friends to see who could score the best trial time in Gran Turismo 3 (that was a while ago). It’s a movie that’s produced by the game company, so, naturally, love and praise for the franchise is brazenly stamped all over the film. Plenty of fan service on display, particularly during the racing scenes, with camera angles and on-screen symbols and graphics straight from the game. It’s a mixed bag in terms of marketing delivery – sometimes its smooth enough, mixing well with the overall plot, other times it really does just feel like an expensive commercial.
I was surprised by the film’s desire to slow it down and focus on drama, touching on the risks associated with the sport and the psychology involved in flooring these monster machines at insane speeds. The film wants to expands its focus to include more than just the game and racing sequences. It’s a good aim to have… if only there was much more of interest to focus on.
The screenplay, by American Sniper writer Jason Hall and Creed III writer Zach Baylin, attempts to paint a bigger picture with its two primary characters: Jann and his trainer, Jack. There simply isn’t much too them apart from very familiar plot devices. Jann’s father doesn’t believe that this whole venture and Gran Turismo obsession will be fruitful, so Jann has someone to prove it to. Jack was once a great racer, so we await to find out what it was that took him away from behind the wheel. There’s also a love interest for Jann, although this romantic through line is most certainly treated like a sub, sub, sub-plot. I really didn’t care about this relationship.
The lack of a dynamic narrative away from the race track really takes a toll on the film’s momentum, and coming in at around 2 hours and 15 minutes… I was left feeling that this circuit needed a few laps cut from it.
Archie Madekwe is decent in the lead, convincing and likeable enough as a young guy thrust into a world he thought he would grasp easily. But it’s David Harbour who really shines here, taking the wheel in every scene he’s in, bringing a level of worn-out, tough love to his character. He balances out Jack’s stern and merciless front with a sympathetic side that makes him a strong father figure. He’s very good.
At worst, Gran Turismo does occasionally feel like one giant, expensive marketing endeavour that unabashedly wants to drive home how incredible these popular racing simulation video games are. At best, it’s a somewhat decent sports film coasting by on a firmly conventional approach. Solid race scenes though.