VERDICT: This biopic of a gamer-turned-racer delivers sports-movie uplift and racing-movie thrills while never letting up on the product placement.
Still, even as they’re crafting a piece of marketing propaganda, director Neill Blomkamp and screenwriters Jason Hall and Zach Baylin slip a relatably human triumph-of-the-underdog story amid the corporate-mandated product-pitching, with some solid auto-racing thrills for extra pleasure. (This is the kind of movie that benefits from a booming cinematic sound system where one can feel the engines revving along the back of one’s neck.)
The based-on-a-true-story part centers on Jann Mardenborough (played here by Archie Madekwe, Midsommar). Except for the time he got taken to an auto show as a five-year-old, the closest Jann ever got to a racecar was in the hours and hours he played Gran Turismo; the game, as we are reminded over and over again in this film, was designed to be as accurate as possible, from the creation of the cars to the sounds and sensations of racing at the world’s most famous speedways.
Jann’s dad Steve (Djimon Hounsou) wishes his son would turn off his computer and play football (Steve was a pro player on Cardiff’s team); mum Lesley (Geri Halliwell Horner, nearly unrecognizable as the Artist Formerly Known as Ginger Spice) is more supportive.
Jann holds on to his dream of going into non-virtual auto racing, and he gets a step closer to that dream when Nissan exec Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom) pitches the company on creating a training camp for the world’s best Gran Turismo players, with the champion getting a slot on Team Nissan. Washed-up former pro driver Jack Salter (David Harbour) — who’s exceedingly dubious about joystick jockeys dealing with the real-life dangers and split-second decision-making of auto racing — reluctantly comes on board as coach and trainer.
The training-camp sequence takes up more of the film than is necessary; Jann’s nine other competitors are barely established as individual characters, and Blomkamp never builds much suspense in getting us to Jann’s inevitable crowning as the best of the gamer crew. Once Jann finds himself on accurate tracks opposite real drivers — every single one who resents his presence — Gran Turismo starts picking up speed.
The film goes to a darker place than you might imagine for this kind of brand-building: Jann gets in an accident that leads to the death of a spectator, and even though it’s acknowledged that it wasn’t his fault, he has to overcome his fear and guilt to get back behind the wheel. (“A man is dead because of me,” says Jann, to which Jack responds, “A man is dead because auto racing is dangerous.”)
This isn’t a film that’s out to subvert sports-movie tropes; we know that Jann will overcome obstacles and go on to victory, just as we know that he will eventually win the admiration of race fans, his pit crew, and even Jack. And while Blomkamp and his editors Austyn Daines and Colby Parker Jr. don’t redefine cinematic auto-racing in the way that Wachowski’s over-the-top, candy-colored Speed Racer did, Gran Turismo finds new and exciting ways to put us inside the action and Jann’s head, as he imagines himself in a real race car while playing Gran Turismo (and vice versa). It helps that the engaging Madekwe can convey so much with only his eyes and nose visible under a racing helmet.
The performances in general (except Bloom, who’s saddled with a one-note character) go a long way to selling the material, from Harbour’s gruff mentor to Hounsou’s well-meaning dad (gamers everywhere will love his tearful admission that maybe all those hours Jann spent at his PlayStation weren’t wasted after all) to Halliwell Horner’s loving mother, who explodes into grief when Jann has his racing accident.
Gran Turismo is a piece of salesmanship that never stops selling — the movie constantly reminds us how much the actual races resemble the accurate simulation of the game, and even the Sony Walkman gets a fair amount of screen time — but the vroom-vroom of it all delivers enough adrenaline and character-building to make this a solidly entertaining piece of late-summer cinema.