REVIEW: Gran Turismo (2023, dir. Neil Blomkamp)

Certificate: 12A

Running Time: 134 mins

UK Distributor: Sony Pictures

WHO’S IN GRAN TURISMO?

Archie Madekwe, David Harbour, Orlando Bloom, Darren Barnet, Djimon Hounsou, Geri Halliwell, Daniel Puig, Josha Stradowski, Thomas Kretschmann, Maeve Courtier-Lilley, Richard Cambridge, Emelia Hartford, Pepe Barroso, Sang Heon Lee, Max Mundt, Mariano González, Harki Bhambra, Lindsay Pattison, Théo Christine, Nikhil Parmar, Takehiro Hira

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Neil Blomkamp (director), Zach Baylin and Jason Hall (writers), Doug Belgrad, Dana Brunetti, Asad Qizilbash and Carter Swan (producers), Lorne Balfe (composer), Jacques Jouffret (cinematographer), Austyn Daines and Colby Parker Jr. (editors)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

A young Gran Turismo player (Madekwe) gets a chance to race in real life…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON GRAN TURISMO?

PlayStation’s long-running Gran Turismo series has no plot to speak of. It is, by design, merely a racing simulator where players can experience the thrills and various speeds of driving fast race cars on some of the world’s most recognisable tracks without actually being there or even driving the car itself. There are no stakes, no dramatic infusions, and no plot points to speak of: it’s just a racing game, no more, no less.

It’s therefore no wonder why a movie adaptation has repeatedly stalled at various stages of development. The lack of plot within the source material has forced filmmakers to try and get creative, often failing to find something substantial enough to warrant such a venture (for example, Top Gun: Maverick’s Joseph Kosinski was at one point lined up to direct a big-screen version until that project fell through; funnily enough, he’s now working on his own car racing feature for Apple). Not only that, but we’ve already seen how a movie version of a racing game with no plot can turn out, and it isn’t exactly encouraging; 2014’s Need for Speed, the deathly dull and infuriatingly nonsensical adaptation of EA’s racing franchise, is a low bar that nobody wants to reach, let alone descent further than.

The answer, according to director Neil Blomkamp, is to take inspiration from real life, albeit with heavy liberties regarding the mostly-true story. Along with screenwriters Zach Baylin and Jason Hall, the District 9 filmmaker takes a fascinating real-world concept and morphs into a pure wish-fulfilment fantasy that, while certainly not without its fair share of conventional trappings, is a mostly entertaining effort that works more than it theoretically should.

Instead of formally adapting the games themselves, Blomkamp’s Gran Turismo tells the story of Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe), a young man living in Cardiff with his parents Steve (Djimon Hounsou) and Lesley (Geri Halliwell – yes, Ginger Spice herself) who spends his days playing the titular game, dreaming of one day racing actual cars in a professional manner. His chance soon comes when Nissan marketing executive Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom) creates a contest for the world’s best Gran Turismo players to attend the GT Academy and learn how to become professional drivers, under the tutelage of former racer Jack Salter (David Harbour). Jann, of course, not only makes it to the Academy but soon zooms through and onto the professional international circuit, where he encounters fierce competition, tense tracks, and the odd bit of tragedy.

Is it all just one big feature-length advertisement for the game (and several other well-known brands, from Nissan to PlayStation itself)? It absolutely is, in almost the same way that Space Jam was a giant commercial for Nike, the NBA, and so many other things. Here, characters treat the original Gran Turismo games like they’re holy scripture, with several fantasy sequences where they imagine themselves driving in the pixelated world of the video game, and in actual racing scenes there will even be camera angles and added effects that are designed to replicate the game’s overall aesthetic. The logos for Nissan and PlayStation are almost everywhere, while others for Moët & Chandon and even the film’s distributor Sony are pretty hard to miss as well (though in fairness regarding the latter, Sony products have popped up in plenty of their films in the past). Hell, the actual creator of Gran Turismo, Kazunori Yamauchi (as portrayed by actor Takehiro Hira) is a character who pops up every now and then, to remind the audience once again of how innovative and influential his creation is. There’s little doubt that this is a movie purely designed to promote various stuff to the audience, and it often doesn’t even attempt to hide that fact.

As cynical as its existence may well be, the admirable thing about Blomkamp’s film is that it is, in its own way, not only aware of how much of a commercial it is, but it goes out of its way to treat its wish-fulfilment premise as seriously as it can, while still giving the viewer a movie that’s not half-bad. Sure, Baylin and Hall’s script is filled with plenty of tropes and conventions you’d expect to see in a sports movie, let alone one about car racing – such highlights include the bullish main competitor, the trainer with a tragic past, and, of course, montages aplenty – but the writers do manage to work in some tender heartfelt moments that create a decent level of drama, which are well-performed by the likes of Archie Madekwe, David Harbour, and Djimon Hounsou (and for those asking: Geri Halliwell isn’t in the movie as much, but when she does show up she’s perfectly fine). Meanwhile, Blomkamp – here with perhaps his most enjoyable film since District 9 – breathes plenty of life and energy into the racing scenes themselves, with rapid-fire editing and some exciting drone camerawork that produces enough adrenaline to see the viewer over the finish line.

It may be a corporate product, but it’s a well-executed one that actually does make for some solid escapist entertainment that follows the rulebook in swift and crowd-pleasing fashion. That being said, for anyone hoping this might be a genuine look at the real-life Jann Mardenborough’s incredible rise in the ranks of professional race car driving, you might want to take it all with a pinch of salt because much of what is shown here feels very fictionalised, even for a film that already takes quite a chunk of dramatic liberties. While Madekwe is a charismatic presence, the character himself is written to be a pretty stock sports movie lead, and is often overshadowed by the likes of David Harbour and Orlando Bloom who have more interesting arcs than the actual lead does. The film also handles a pretty traumatic moment in Mardenborough’s career rather weirdly, with the focus being entirely on how he copes and eventually recovers, while there is absolutely no time given to the other side of the incident, which actually suffered a far more tragic consequence than Mardenborough did.

Although it’s not without its flaws, Gran Turismo works better than it has any right to, and achieves what Need for Speed never could by adapting a racing game with no plot into a movie that very much leaves its competitor in the dust.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Gran Turismo is a mostly entertaining wish-fulfilment sports movie that doesn’t attempt to hide its blatant commercialism nor its various storytelling tropes, but is well-executed enough to serve as a wholly decent crowd-pleaser.

Gran Turismo is showing in cinemas from Wednesday 9th August 2023

Click here to find showtimes near you!

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