Now that the much discussed hilarity of making a Gran Turismo movie is out of the way, the real punchline is that the Gran Turismo movie is really rather good. Of course, it does so by being very safe: taking a pretty interesting true story (and some heavy creative license) and plugging it into the classic underdog sports movie template. This has more in common with a Rocky film than it does with other video game adaptations — which is the right way to take it considering the source material. The tale told around Gran Turismo is the appeal here, with a decent amount of reverence given to the game itself.
The positioning of the game, a series I enjoy, is somewhat bizarre. The film pitches a world in which Gran Turismo is the only simulation racing game. When other games exist that are more focused on replicating motor racing, and when there’s a goofiness and distinct personality to Gran Turismo that is ignored, it does feel a bit insert-a-franchise. The true story we want to adapt involves Gran Turismo and that frames the way Gran Turismo is presented. It does feel strange though that the lead creative behind the series, Kazunori Yamauchi, is played by an actor in the film — as are all ostensibly real people but it is such an incidental inclusion that it sticks out as strange, and does reflect the positioning of the game in the film (though is probably down to wider reasons).
As the marketing keeps pushing, though, it’s all about the true story. And it’s a good one. A 19 year-old from Cardiff, Wales that got so good at playing Gran Turismo they became a professional racing driver. Couple this with a marketing story, where Orlando Bloom (who adopts a British accent throughout that will make you think ‘I can’t believe he is actually British’), gets to play a somewhat slimeball executive who has engineered the whole thing to get more people to buy Nissan. The whole thing being, setting up a competition in Gran Turismo that will give the top players a chance to enter an Academy programme, where they learn to race actual cars, and the best performing ‘student’ will become a racer for Nissan. Every beat has a tried and tested analogue and is accompanied with equally tried and tested family dynamics. Our racer, a really good Archie Madekwe as Jann Mardenborough, has a father who sees his Gran Turismo dreams as unrealistic, and then he gets a surrogate father figure through his trainer, Jack Salter (a composite character), played by David Harbour.
David Harbour is the best bit of the film. He has a lot of fun in a grouchy role that he gives more to than the script does, in terms of character depth. Harbour and Madekwe are excellent together on screen, the studied awkwardness of the latter being a wonderful foil for the jaded drill sergeant stylings of the former. It is a lot of David Harbour denigrating gamers, and it works. The actual family plot in the background reinserts itself at elements but nothing really is done with it beyond broad strokes. It so obviously exists only for character motivation and the film only really wants to be about the Harbour and Madekwe combo. Djimon Honsou is good enough as the father, Geri Horner (yes, that Geri Horner) is given even less as the mother but is perfectly fine. The film isn’t really willing to code the real life parents of a real life racer as negative so ends up mostly ignoring them. Djimon Hounsou’s character is left as deeply inconsistent, and ultimately superfluous.
The core underdog arc works, though. The adapted story fits into a decent template and, while the script is very on the nose and overly typical, the execution is effective. The racing scenes are also very impressive. Director Neil Blomkamp is making a different type of film (though it is still arguably a film about the tensions caused from different worlds colliding, and one concerned with technology); however, his past in sci-fi action fits well here. The video game is made to feel, smartly, like a portal into reality and then the racing (in a fun shift) is made to feel a little like a video game when Jann is behind the wheel. Angles from the games are kept and there is enough little UI-flourishes, and gamey elements, to make it dynamic looking as opposed to just very silly. We are a long way away from the first-person scene in Doom (2005). There is a real heft to the racing. These are real cars on real tracks and the filmmakers make them feel exciting. Racing scenes provide the appropriate rush and establish the excitement that the film needs. It is damn good filmmaking, showing that Blomkamp has been wasted on blank-slate projects, and is better as a director for hire, as s solid pair of hands.
That being said, one choice the film makes is incredibly reprehensible. The story fits so neatly to a filmic structure, which is why it works so well, apart from one point that is substantively changed. There is a lot of timeline changing in the film. A story set in 2011 about a PlayStation 3 game, that can’t fly in 2023. So, it’s about the latest release on a PlayStation 5 and it’s happening right now, as opposed to over a decade ago. But it still keeps the initial arc of a career from playing in the bedroom to competing at Le Mans. Along this way, it also includes a tragic accident where Mardenborough’s car (due to no fault of his), lost control and hit a spectator, killing them. It is an important part of Mardenborough’s story, and is an important part of the reality of motor racing. It is more important to the victim, and those linked to them, but the inclusion makes sense — until you look into how the timelines has been altered here. In this film, this accident gives Mardenborough an arc: it places him into despair and therefore he needs the Le Mans race to pull out of that (it’s a get back on the horse after you’ve fallen moment). In that Le Mans race he also has to deal with traumatic flashbacks and residual guilt. The thing is, the accident happened years after the Le Mans race featured. Changing around the timeframe like this to make emotional and narrative currency out of an actual tragedy is genuinely grotesque, and really sours the film.
The film outside of this certainly isn’t amazing, but parts of it are. The driving sequences are really something, and show personality beyond what you usually see in a licensed blockbuster. The two central performances are also very strong, especially David Harbour. He takes what should be such a played out archetype and is just so good, so engaging and so fun. A lot of the appeal here is in it being surprisingly good but most of the appeal is satisfying genre filmmaking. It ticks the requisite boxes and completes some with style. This comes with a price, though, and that moment of exploitation does really harm things.