With David Harbour’s wonderfully weighted and poignant performance carrying it across the finish line, Gran Turismo makes for a great night at the movies.
Game tie-ins have varying degrees of success. Some are abysmal, and some are exceptional. But in recent years, the studios have upped their game to deliver solid representations of the games we know and love. Super Mario Bros and Sonic The Hedgehog redefined the movie/game genre and set a new standard for gaming tie-ins. So with visionary director Neill Blomkamp getting behind the wheel of a franchise as revered as Gran Turismo, can Sony Pictures and Playstation cash in on this new wave of success? Or is the beloved racing simulator destined for the pit lane, never to reach the finish line?
Fear not Gran Turismo fans because Neill Blomkamp has raced across the finish line and has secured a place on the podium. And although the film is not without its flaws, it delivers a compelling, adrenalin-fuelled underdog story that has everything a racing fan could ask for. High stakes, drama, an engaging true story, a killer soundtrack, and a plethora of obligatory high-speed hijinks. So, let’s unpack this sucker and find our racing line.
One can be forgiven for thinking Sony would churn out a cheap cash grab focussing on mindless racing around the track for two hours. But that misconception is a great disservice to Blomkamp’s directorial chops. The visionary director is renowned for finding the human story hidden within his projects to deliver a truly engaging story. And that trend continues here.
The story, which is based on true events follows Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe), a Gran Turismo player who dreams of going beyond his console and climbing behind the wheel of a real car. And when Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom), Nissan’s marketing executive, hatches a scheme to convert gamers into car owners, he seeks out only the best gamers from all corners of the globe. The invitation-only contest quickly finds the most elite Gran Turismo players who are all invited to enroll in the newly minted GT Academy. And once on site, the gamers are put through their paces to determine which one of them can handle the transition into the world of professional racing.
Once the premise that the film is based on true events has sunk in, the story becomes all the more compelling. Jann is introduced to us as an intelligent gamer who dreams of making it to the big time. All the while, his father Steve (Djimon Hounsou) constantly reminds him of his working-class station and does his best to keep him grounded. Even quashing his ambition in order to facilitate conforming to the dynamics of the real world. It’s an intriguing debate. Is the father right to quash his dreams and steer Jann’s focus into something achievable? Or should Steve be supporting his son as he follows his dreams?
In truth, this debate will become the main focal point of the movie. And while it will inevitably spark a healthy conversation, it does serve to bring father and son together and spreads a positive message we can all take something from. Jann’s mother Lesley (Geri Halliwell), on the other hand, is revealed as his biggest supporter. However, she is far too quick to rescind her support in light of her husband’s views. And this leaves Jann alone as he sets off to GT Academy to compete for a professional racing contract.
Once the story arrives at GT Academy, we are introduced to the true star of Gran Turismo. And surprisingly it isn’t the cars. Stepping into the role of Jack Salter (Jann’s trainer) is the irreplaceable David Harbour who delivers a career-best performance here. Salter is a former racing driver who yearns to get back into the fast lane. However, an incident forced him into retirement leaving him slightly bitter and pondering what might have been. And once convinced to lead the GT Academy, the skeptical Salter sets out to ensure the gamers fail in the quest to prove Sim Racers can become professional drivers.
Harbour digs deep here and produces a wonderfully poignant performance that is as weighted as it is brilliant. His performance is infectious, and as the movie progresses, Salter becomes all the more endearing. Not just to Jann, but to the audience too. And within minutes, we are invested in his tragic backstory. And as Jann progresses through the ranks, Salter’s tough exterior degrades to reveal his strongest supporter and most loyal mentor. Harbour’s brilliance cannot be overstated here. He’s truly magnificent. And even though he often carries the movie on his broad shoulders, his performance is more than up to the task of carrying the burden.
Obviously, a movie about a racing simulator needs to showcase some serious edge-of-your-seat racing. And I’m delighted to report that GT has it in abundance. From the opening moments, Blomkamp sets out to pay homage to the game, all the while showcasing the harsh reality of professional racing. It’s a difficult balance to find, but the director pulls it off. During the many races, icons from the game are littered across our screens, and the transition from console racing into professional driving is made all the more seamless by some well-placed CGI shots. Cars are deconstructed and reconstructed at will giving us the most realistic experience possible. And this all happens IN RACE.
Ordinarily, this high-speed dismantling of a vehicle would be jarring. But here it’s seamless and adds to the grandeur of each race. But sadly, it isn’t all jaw-dropping awesomeness. Frustratingly, from the laps around GT Academy to the professional circuit, every race is showcased as a highlight reel. It is a frustrating experience. And I found myself longing for a prolonged racing experience that followed Jann’s story to the chequered flag. In truth, each race is limited in screen time which is detrimental to our investment in the story. But given the constraints of time and budget, what we are rewarded with is more than enough to keep us on the edge-of-our seats for the brisk 134 minutes running time. And this is accentuated by another truly wonderful score from Lorne Balfe.
After his incredible work on Black Adam and Mission Impossible, Lorne Balfe has continued to defy expectations to deliver some truly wonderful themes here. Collaborating with Andrew Kawczynski, the duo has produced a perfect accompaniment to the adrenaline-fuelled action we see on the screen. Each track heightens the action on screen and serves to propel the story to its inevitable and pulse-pounding conclusion. And the selection of rock and pop tracks adds more polish to the finished film which is a shoo-in to leave the audience with a grin on their faces. And that is the calling card of a masterful composer at the very top of his game.
Sadly, Gran Turismo isn’t without its flaws. And these failing stick out like a sore thumb. Firstly, the editing of the movie leaves a lot to be desired. Many sequences don’t quite fit and left me feeling like I’d missed chunks of the movie. Half-consumed glasses of beer appear and disappear at will. And many of the background shots are so generic they could work in any racing montage.
Secondly, some of the performances here are far from ideal. Former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell lends her talent to Jann’s mother Lesley, and although she has very little to do, her performance could not be more rigid. She seems generally emotionless throughout the film, even when tragedy strikes. And her only real contribution to the film is an odd conversation about the benefits of eating lentils. The same can be said about Djimon Hounsou. In his role as Jann’s father, he is on hand to deliver some of the movie’s most profound character development. But given his severely limited screen time, the impact of the lessons being learned is wasted. The weight of the performance does hit home by the finale, but it’s too little too late.
Overall, I had a blast with Gran Turismo. Neill Blomkamp’s spell on the racing line is a success. Yes, the movie takes the creative license and runs with it to heighten the finale, but that is to be expected. And the inevitable outcome is more than enough to send the crowd home happy. In truth, the movie shares some similarities with Sylvester Stallone’s masterwork on Rocky. The movie showcases a true underdog story where the hero rises to the challenge and defies the odds to become a true hero. And in that sense, the movie is a genuine powerhouse. And with Archie Madekwe’s solid starring role and David Harbour’s wonderfully weighted and poignant performance carrying it across the finish line, I’d say that makes for a great night at the movies.
If you’re looking for an uplifting and compelling underdog story well executed, Gran Turismo has more than enough fuel in the tank to see you across the line. Just be sure to overlook some of its flaws. It may not be Blomkamp’s finest hour, but it’s more than enough to entertain the masses for two hours of adrenaline-fuelled mayhem!
Champagne is for the podium!
Gran Turismo is distributed by Sony Pictures and races into cinemas on August 9th
Phil Roberts is the Owner, Daily Content Manager, and Editor-In-Chief of The Future of the Force. He is passionate about Star Wars, Batman, DC, Marvel, Star Trek, Indiana Jones, Ghostbusters, King Kong, and the Ray Harryhausen movies. Follow him on Twitter where he uses the force and babbles frequently!