Gran Turismo (United States/Japan, 2023)August 21, 2023
Gran Turismo is so desperate to get viewers to believe that it starts out with one of the greatest clichés of sports movies: Based on a true story. Of course, the words “based on” allow for a lot of liberties to be taken and, in the case of the tale of race car driver Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe), the writers have made sure to massage the facts into an audience-pleasing casserole of truths, half-truths, and fiction. The bare bones of reality are there but this is primarily a Hollywood construct – a Karate Kid with cars instead of hands and feet, complete with its own version of Mr. Miyagi (a character named Jack Salter, played by David Harbour).
For those who are fond of the overachieving underdog storyline, Gran Turismo hits most of the expected beats. It gets points for a bit of soul searching that occurs early in the second half but, other than that, pretty much every scene plays out as expected. Outside of the pupil/mentor relationship between Jann and Jack, every other human interaction is perfunctory and marginalized, including what could have been the movie’s emotional centerpiece – the sometimes-tense father/son bond between Jann and his footballer father, Steve (Djimon Hounsou). And one wonders why the character of Audrey (Maeve Courtier-Lilley) is in the movie since her role as the generic girlfriend does little more than bump up the overlong running time by about 7 minutes.
The movie tells the “incredible” story of how an addict to the racing simulator Gran Turismo uses his aptitude with the game to jump-start a real-life racing career in which he has a decent amount of success. Jann spends far too much of his time in front of his Playstation console, much to the chagrin of his father, who wants him to go outside and kick around the soccer ball like his brother. Jann’s dedication pays off when he is selected to compete in an elite on-line challenge; if he wins, he has a chance to be invited to join the GT Academy, the brainchild of marketer Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom), which plans to place its top candidate into a real race car. Danny has hired Jack to turn gamers into athletes. Of course, Jann wins the contest and soon finds himself on the road to realizing his dreams.
As overfamiliar as much of Gran Turismo is, it’s hard to actively dislike the movie for a couple of reasons. Director Neill Blomkamp (the South African one-time wunderkind who leaped into the international spotlight with his 2009 science fiction feature, District 9) does a good job staging the races, effectively blending actual footage with CGI-enhanced effects. And David Harbour is excellent as the cynical Jack, whose hard-bitten attitude isn’t exactly new for this sort of character – something Harbour understands and works with. Gran Turismo feels like a movie that easily could have been a lot worse but somehow isn’t.
This isn’t technically a “video game movie,” although there is a strong marketing/branding connection between the film and the its PlayStation namesake. The narrative gets some mileage out of arguing about how prepared a gamer might be to translate his/her experiences to the real world. Many of the old-school racers resent this new path, seeing it as a dangerous shortcut that could cost lives (a valid viewpoint that is never given much consideration in the film because it would undercut the feel-good story). There are also various scenes that lovingly depict how the creator of Gran Turismo, Kazunori Yamauchi (Takehiro Hira), developed the simulator with a painstaking attention to detail.
As far as racing movies go, this is several laps behind better offerings like James Mangold’s Ford v. Ferrari and Ron Howard’s Rush, both of which do a better job massaging a “based on a true story” plot into something more interesting and less formulaic. Still, with audiences seemingly seeking out the comfort of familiarity in movie-going experiences, Gran Turismo’s unremarkableness may be a selling point. There’s enough here to keep the film from being a car wreck but it’s hardly an example of championship caliber filmmaking.
Gran Turismo (United States/Japan, 2023)
Cast: Archie Madekwe, David Harbour, Orlando Bloom, Darren Barnet, Djimon Hounsou, Geri Halliwell
Screenplay: Jason Hill and Zach Baylin
Cinematography: Jacques Jouffret
Music: Lorne Balfe, Andrew Kawczynski
U.S. Distributor: PG-13
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