As much as a I love video games, I’ve never been too into racing simulators. The Gran Turismo franchise is something I know and have played, but I couldn’t dream of putting in the hours that those who love it do. In fact, some have gotten so into the series that they ended up with the opportunity to race for real. The story of one of those individuals is what the Gran Turismo film has opted to utilize, as opposed to making a game adaptation. The end result is a movie you’ve pretty much seen before, but a solid one, at that.
Gran Turismo is no Ford v Ferrari (though it shares a similar third act), but it’s no Need for Speed, either, doing enough right to warrant a recommendation. It’s a sports film at its core, taking the hallmarks of the underdog story and just packaging it within the world of a gamer entering the landscape. It’s not a subtle movie, or a particularly deep one, but it is entertaining and surprisingly effective.
This is the story of Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe), an expert racing sim player, who would go on to break barriers by becoming a professional racing driver. His passion for the Gran Turismo game isn’t understood by his family, in particular his former soccer player father Steve (Djimon Hounsou), who wants him to think practically about his future. At the same time, Nissan executive Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom) is looking for a new way to make the car company cool. He lands on GT Academy, a way to have every gamer want their cars. How? By giving the best in the world a chance to race for real, with the opportunity to become a professional if they’re good enough. He comes across Jann’s skills and soon, he’s one of the few selected for a chance at GT Academy.
Under the tutelage of failed former race car driver Jack Salter (David Harbour), Jann competes with other games at the school. Of course, whomever wins won’t just be welcomed into the professional ranks, but dismissed at every single turn. Through it all, Jann has to learn to trust in his abilities, rise to the occasion, and embrace his calling in life, perhaps even inspiring others in the process.
David Harbour is best in show here, having some fun with his mentor in need of redemption role. He doesn’t overplay it, so he comes off cool and savvy, as opposed to just intense. Orlando Bloom is a bit wasted, though it’s nice to see he and the powers that be resist the urge to make him a villain. A few times, they toy with the idea, but always pull back and keep him an ally. Archie Madekwe is a bit bland, but more or less has the screenplay to blame there, as it’s more concerned with what he’s doing than who he is. As always, Djimon Hounsou isn’t given nearly enough to do. Supporting players include Darren Barnet, Pepe Barroso, Maeve Courtier-Lilley, Emelia Hartford, Geri Horner, Thomas Kretschmann, Daniel Puig, Josha Stradowski, and more.
Director Neill Blomkamp has had to essentially move to for-hire work after a string of failures, though he fits the material surprisingly well. His visceral filmmaking comes through at times, giving some vibrancy to the script from Jason Hall, Zach Baylin, and Alex Tse. Baylin and Hall are true story veterans and know how to thread this needle, even if they don’t really develop any of the characters beyond the bare minimum. No one is doing anything extraordinary in Gran Turismo, and this runs about fifteen minutes too long (Blomkamp occasionally takes a beat or two more than necessary when you can tell what’s coming next), but the movie works, that’s for sure.
Gran Turismo isn’t the kind of film to blow you away, but it hits most of the elements you want out of a racing movie. The fact that it centers around a gamer making good on his talents is an interesting quirk, as the rest is just an underdog tale. Is this ultimately at least partially a commercial for the game franchise? Yes. Does it exist to some degree in order to sell more copies of Gran Turismo? Of course. Will it probably do that? Most likely. Is the flick good enough to justify being a cog in that wheel? I think so.