Principal Cast : Archie Madekwe, David Harbour, Orlando Bloom, Darren Barnet, Geri Halliwell-Horner, Djimon Hounsou, Takehiro Hira, Josha Stradowski, Daniel Puig, Maeve Courtier-Lilley, Thomas Kretschmann, Emelia Hartford, Pepe Barroso.
Synopsis: Based on the unbelievable, inspiring true story of a team of underdogs – a struggling, working-class gamer, a failed former race car driver, and an idealistic motorsport exec – who risk it all to take on the most elite sport in the world.
I was one of many who pooh-poohed the idea of a film based on the incredibly popular Playstation game Gran Turismo – a game I myself have played countless hours of. I’m starting to think that film’s developed off popular non-narrative IP, such as the recent Tetris biopic, have legitimate merit in the conversation, because despite this “based on a true story” hogwash being populist and unendingly saccharine, Gran Turismo is actually a heck of a lot of fun.
Young Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe) spends countless hours aspiring to be a pro racing driver, using all his free time playing the popular racing game Gran Turismo on his console. His father, Steve (Djimon Hounsou) and mother, Lesley (former Spice Girl and wife of current Red Bull Racing’s Team Principal Christian Horner, Geri Halliwell-Horner) lament him wasting his life, until Nissan marketing executive Dany Moore (Orlando Bloom) concocts a bonkers idea to put the best online racers into real race-cars on actual racetracks in competition, in the hope of recruiting new talent; this leads Jann to win a competition for a spot in the newly formed GT Academy, alongside other potential signees, all under the hard-edged auspices of chief engineer Jack Salter (David Harbour). As Jann struggles to come to terms with the vast gulf of experience between sitting in a room with a screen and actually driving a powerful racing vehicle, both Salter and Danny cut loose the other contestants until only one is remaining, and then they have to throw him into the lions den of professional racing on a global stage.
Gran Turismo might be based on a true story, but it is frankly unbelievable that the finished film turned out as good as this. Neill Blomkamp’s career has been careening into a chicane since his sublime feature debut with District 9, with increasingly disappointing projects sullying his potential – Elysium, Chappie…. ugh, Demonic – fermenting a general distrust of his work. Gran Turismo represents Blomkamp at his most mainstream, offering audiences absolutely no political or social subtext to a story other than just to make it cool as hell and slick as butter. It works: while the film’s screenplay is as inane and comprehensively silly as one can possibly make it, the director resorts to frantic cutting, delightful visual effects and the sheer chemistry of his lead actors to deliver a raucous, often predictable race-and-crash opus that’s less Stallone’s Driven and more Frankenheimer’s Le Mans, with which this film bears a significant similarity.
The plot might sound somewhat familiar; yes, the real Jann Mardenborough was plucked from obscurity as an online racer to actually drive a real-world version of the cars he only ever saw on his computer screen. Sounds a lot like The Last Starfighter, doesn’t it? Throw in a subtle romantic interest with girlfriend Audrey (an underused Maeve Courtier-Lilley), a belligerently gruff mentor (David Harbour, who saves the film single-handedly) and some state of the art computer effects (look, I know a Porche 911 ain’t got much against a Gunstar) and you have an almost direct ripoff of the classic 80’s sci-fi charmer. The similarities end at the edge of the track, though, because once Grand Turismo steps away from its banal family drama subplot and cringeworthy attempt to generate interest in whatever the hell Djimon Hounsou’s father character is trying to do, and hits the asphalt, this film sings.
Blomkamp recognises that if you’re titling your film after a Playstation game, you’d better reference that game in some form or another, and as often as humanly possible. Clever use of the game’s sound effects and visual motifs, hinted at in the opening sequences in which we see Jann playing the game, layered across the real-and-CG footage of the cars on track in real life, maintains the spirited flavour of following the driving line and cornering a little too hard, as rookie drivers spin, flip and crash out of contention. The energetic action sequences won’t revolutionise the car racing genre in the same way they did in Days of Thunder or Ford V Ferrari, but they’re bombastic and slick enough to propel this paper-thin story to it’s inevitably cheer-worthy conclusion. Jason Hall and Zach Baylin’s controversial screenplay isn’t particularly original, borderline derivative at times, but it does the job just well enough to prevent this high-octane chariot race from slamming into the wall.
I say controversial because, if you can believe it, the writers and Blomkamp made the egregious decision to use the real-life death of a spectator at one of Jann’s races to propel a narrative beat towards the end of the film. Back in 2015, the real Mardenborough crashed into a crowd of spectators during a race, killing one person. This event is recreated for the film, however it is transplanted to a different period in the racer’s life and, perhaps more problematically, is used to further the character growth of the main character in a way that doesn’t feel particularly… subtle. I would think the family of the spectator who died would be mighty aggrieved that their personal tragedy was used in such a flippant, offhanded manner.
Regardless, Grand Turismo is a blast of racing egomania and by hell does it entertain. It’s superficial to a fault, lacking grace, poise or nuance, and character development is non-existent in the Playstation Studios world of zoomity-zoom. The cast are all good with their respective roles and Blomkamp’s direction is confidence personified, perhaps hoping they breezy, cheesy sentimentality and a jaw-dropping “I can’t believe they pulled this off” story will overcome filmmaking jaundice. Settle in, turn it up and enjoy it for what it is; as a biopic there are many that are far better, but few are as loud and obvious as this.