PG-13, 135 mins.
2023, PG-13, 135 mins.
Archie Madekwe as Jann Mardenborough / David Harbour as Jack Salter / Orlando Bloom as Danny Moore / Darren Barnet as Matty Davis / Geri Halliwell as Lesley Mardenborough / Djimon Hounsou as Steve Mardenborough / Josha Stradowski as Nicholas CapaDirected by Neill Blomkamp / Written by Jason Hall and Alex Tse
GRAN TURISMO traverses down some of the most overused underdog sports movie clichés that are out there.
There's the young, misunderstood, but gifted outcast that struggles to gain acceptance, even within his own family unit.
There's the bitter and older mentor coach figure that begrudgingly takes in this protégée.
There's the hot-headed, thoroughly talented, and potentially unstoppable opponent that the underdog must conquer.
There's the obligatory girlfriend with a heart of gold that sticks by this man through thick and thin as he desperately tries to make it to the top.
There's the unavoidable setback/injury that makes the hero re-think his place in his sport.
There's the inspirational training montage post-injury and the final climatic "big match" that sees the once down on his luck underdog achieve his dreams.
There is nothing in terms of basic storytelling here that has not been done or done better before.
Yet, what chiefly separates GRAN TURISMO apart from its countless other similar genre offerings is that this is a video game adaptation that's thoroughly unlike just about any other that I've seen. The film's title is taken from the incredibly popular racing simulator of the same name that has been a mainstay for the PlayStation for decades, but it goes well beyond the standard accoutrements of what viewers come to expect in these types of game to movie adaptations. This one focuses on the improbable, but very real life story of Jann Mardenborough, who began modestly as a high ranking Gran Turismo online player and eventually used his skills with the game to become an actual race car driver on professional circuits and achieve dominance within it. So, technically, GRAN TURISMO is not technically an adaptation of the game itself. It's really about a young man that mastered it and honed those skills into a tangible and successful career in real cars against real people. Again, the underdog conventions used here are painfully routine, yes, but GRAN TURISMO compensates with some thanklessly good and committed performances as well as showcasing some stunningly realized and exhilarating race footage.
Oh, and this is directed by the Oscar-nominated Neill Blomkamp. The South African-born filmmaker has arguably never made a film that has attained the same critical and audience respect of his genre busting DISTRICT 9 (even though I greatly admired his ambitious follow-up in ELYSIUM and sort of liked CHAPPIE). The last film he made was the dreadfully amateurish DEMONIC from a few years back, which made me kind of wonder if he'd ever recapture some of his past filmmaking mojo, but GRAN TURISMO represents a modestly solid return to form for him.
The film introduces us to Jann Mardenborough (played well by Archie Madekwe) when he was a lowly British teen in 2011 who lived vicariously through playing Gran Turismo via his elaborate bedroom gaming set-up. His father, Steve (Djimon Hounsou), seems cut from a larger cloth of movie dads that love their sons, but disapprove of how they're wasting their lives and young adulthoods with what they consider to be useless hobbies. Because Steve was once a soccer star, he maintains some justifiable motives to get his son out of the bedroom and away from his PlayStation console and out into the real world to do something with his life. Concurrent to this is the story of Nissan marketing manager, Danny Moore (a well cast Orlando Bloom), who's developing a somewhat ingenious, but also risky, joint venture with PlayStation execs. He wants to pool together the best Gran Turismo players in the world for a real world competition to see if one of them could be conditioned into becoming a real race car driver. Miraculously, he gets the go-ahead from both corporations, but he needs help organizing the event and someone to train these hardcore gamers to become blood, sweat and tears athletes. He gets former race car driver and now veteran pit crewman Jack Salter (a terrific David Harbour) to join him, even though the former thinks his plan is nuts to the max. As Jack tries to mentor the gathered together GT players and whip them into shape, it becomes clear that Jann has what it takes to make it all the way, but the journey won't be easy considering that (a) he's no athlete and (b) the sport in question is one of multiple risks and dangers.
There's something to be said about the larger questions that GRAN TURISMO poses on viewers, like, for example, could a gamer with an encyclopedic knowledge of race cars and limitless skills behind a gaming racing wheel actually make it as a pro race car driver? The character of David might serve as an audience surrogate for some in the way that he's highly dubious that any gamer could ever become close to the level of a real flesh and blood race car driver. And like all perfunctory sports pictures, GRAN TURISMO features multiple training vignettes of the crusty doubter that is David putting Jann and the dozens of other GT Academy hopefuls through a highly rigorous program that tests them mentally and physically (especially, for example, the blasting off rocket ship levels of G-forces that are exuded on the body in a race car and the arduously hot temperatures inside the cars themselves). David, on paper, is the kind of hard-assed instructor that - with a lesser actor at the helm - would have been running on pure cornball, but Harbour is surprisingly nuanced and quite excellent, providing layers of depth to this character that the screenplay sometimes doesn't afford. His scenes with Madekwe (who's natural and appealing here) give GRAN TURISMO some grounded and warm tenderness that more easily allows for our developing interest in these people and their emerging Herculean task ahead of them.
On a technical level, Blomkamp deserves kudos for making the modestly budgeted ($60 million) GRAN TURISMO come alive from a technical perspective and look like a vastly more expensive undertaking. He does a lot of interesting things stylistically when presenting the mindset of Jann while at his bedroom gaming gear (he digitally constructs a race car around his setup when playing GT that pays off well later in the film when he's actually behind the wheel of the car). In terms of the racing sequences themselves, the staging and choreography of them blend practical cars and stunts (with, ironically enough, the real Mardenborough serving as a stunt driver double for Madekwe) with CGI enhancements (Blomkamp makes bravura usage of some stunning drone-assisted camera pans and dollies to give the proceedings a propulsive immediacy). This film looks sensational (perhaps more than I was expecting going in), the race footage is thrilling and uniquely orchestrated, and the performances by Harbour and Madekwe are lived-in and credible enough to allow for our easy buy-in. That's a far cry more than I could say about many other past video game movies that seem to stumble out of the gate towards inevitable failure.
So much of GRAN TURISMO is so inspired and well made that it had the negative side effect of emphasizing what doesn't work here from a scripting perspective. The based on a true story tagline here should be taken with a big grain of salt, seeing as the makers here are definitely compressing, augmenting, re-arranging, and sometimes ignoring facts altogether. Some characters are not particularly well written, especially the marginalized and on pure-story-autopilot Audrey (Maeve Coutier-Lilley), the aforementioned love interest in Jann's life that never evolves beyond that in the screenplay. Jann's chief rival in Nick (Josha Stradowski) is the insanely rich, well-trained, and surrounded by yes-men champion that only facilitates this film's knee-jerk need for a simplistic one-note villain. The always authoritative Hounsou is given far too little screentime as Jann's deeply prideful father who never gave his kid the nurturing support that he has craved all of his life (fortunately, Housou is superb in one brief, but touching confrontation later in the film with Madekwe that helps save this character from being horribly underwitten). Strangest of all is Bloom's Danny Moore, whose motivations at times in the film are on an ill-defined pendulum. Sometimes, he comes off as an all-business first/corporate-minded hustler that cares more about his elaborate stunt than he does about the GT Academy participants themselves and then later shows up as a figure of support for Jann's well-being. Like...what?
Here's another thorny element: GRAN TURISMO seems to - ahem! - completely drive around the totally valid perspective of some professional race car drivers that taking gamer kids and trying to mould them into athletes is dangerous not only for these novices, but also to those established in the sport that have spent their lives in it. I mean...they have a point. I'm guessing that level of introspection towards the material would undercut the relative rousing treatment that Mardenborough is given here. To be fair, he attained the nearly unattainable and defied all odds to appear in over 200 races during his career, with one including his participation in the 24 Hours of Le Mans (he finished third). Parts of me acknowledge that GRAN TURISMO is sort of a cynical-minded piece of marketing for both Sony and Nissan. In lesser hands, this film could have devolved into a two-plus hour commercial for these brands. That, and very few underdog sports figures have corporate power and financial backing to boot the way Mardenborough did (it's almost antithetical to the whole notion of what makes someone an underdog). And, yeah, GRAN TURISMO is basically THE KARATE KID and ROCKY, but with game controllers and cars.
Still, I'm recommending this film, mostly because Blomkamp has undeniably made an entertaining and effectively orchestrated crowd-pleaser and a highly novel outside-of-the-box game adaptation morphed into a sports drama (that, let's face it, is stealthily not really a game adaptation at all). The story at the heart of GRAN TURISMO is as remarkable as it gets, and even though the resulting film wallows in well-worn and increasingly stale genre formulas, it genuinely attempts to transcend them in interesting ways and makes it across the finish line in mostly winning form.