Imagine having the opportunity to not simply play your favorite game but to actually live it. On second thought, that could be quite terrifying for a lot of us. Though not if you love Gran Turismo. Just don’t call it a game. Created by Kazunori Yamauchi, it’s technically a racing simulator that’s apparently pretty damn accurate when it comes to racing in reality. Based on a true underdog story of a gamer becoming a real racer, Gran Turismo the movie mixes elements of the PlayStation gaming series with a personal story of defying the odds. It’s a thrill ride that’s not without some storytelling wreckage; however, once it kicks into gear and commits, Gran Turismo scrapes by with a win while crossing the finish line.
Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe, an Ari Aster favorite) is one of the most elite racers to ever take part in Gran Turismo. But that doesn’t impress his father (a wonderful Djimon Hounsou) who wants him to invest his time in to something more achievable than being a pro racer. Jann’s younger brother is into soccer, following in their father’s footsteps, though Jann took a sharp turn away from it. Sometimes parents just don’t understand…unless your mother happens to be Ginger Spice! Geri Halliwell Horner is mum to the Mardenborough bros and has a gentler approach in handling Jann’s dream of being a pro race car driver. What seems unfathomable to practically everyone but Jann becomes a real possibility thanks to Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom). He presents an opportunity of a lifetime for Jann and the chance to prove he can get his motor running outside of his bedroom and in an actual race car. Living his life a quarter mile at a time is about to start.
Moore works in the marketing department at Nissan and he pitches this exciting idea of inviting the best of the best GT sim drivers to compete and earn a spot in their lavish academy where someone will claim the top spot, thus joining a legit racing team and race against the most skilled drivers in the world who do this for a living. And who better to be the Chief Engineer of this crazy experiment than a failed former racer who never found out how great he could have been. His name is Jack Salter (David Harbour) and he wasn’t Danny’s first choice. Not his second or third or fourth or fifth choice, either. He was his last and only choice.
When Gran Turismo tries to roll in emotion and sincerity – it’s mostly relying on Harbour and he doesn’t let us down. He’s charismatic and funny, which we have all thoroughly enjoyed over the years in Stranger Things. On top of that, he does the heavy lifting when it comes to caring about certain characters and their setbacks on and off the track. Salter is hard-nosed and bitter and thinks none of these kids have a chance in hell at becoming a legit racer. At least not at first. Knowing what it’s going to take, there’s no remorse in his preparing and training of the young gamers. Admittedly, it’s rather comical during these scenes because nothing has us believing any of them are truly capable of making it pro. They’re hard to take serious, but every sports movie has to inspire and have at least one training montage. This one actually has more than one!
Gran Turismo becomes the most fun once school is out and Jann gets his shot at being the real deal. Inexperience, nervousness, dangerous rivalries and more await him as he drives knowing he’s only got one shot at this. In a split second, it could all come crashing down for him, Salter, and Moore. None of them will be able to walk away unscathed. In typical sports movie fashion, everything they have worked for hangs on one race, on one track that Salter knows all too well. It’s where the rubber meets the road.
You can see where Gran Turismo is headed from a mile away, so at least director Neill Blomkamp (District 9) puts in a solid effort to make the trek as entertaining as possible. By throwing in elements of the actual game and allowing the audience to sit in the drivers seat, he captures the right sort of spirit and energy that people at home who have played this for years would want. This fast and furious feature is at its strongest and most confident when it sticks to the action on the track. The racing scenes get somewhat repetitive, but they never lose that high-octane, exciting spark.
When Blomkamp has to shift gears and focus on the individuals, it gets a bit rough. Madekwe and Harbour smooth it out when they can with tons of heart. Still, the script is seriously lacking and, more frustratingly, Blomkamp’s vision becomes quite bland once the races end and Gran Turismo returns to its obvious formulaic technique and product placement paradise.
Though there’s a lot that could stall the fun of Gran Turismo, it’s entirely adequate because it delivers where and when it has to. The racing is why the game is popular and it’s why it’s the movie’s top priority. If Blomkamp doesn’t get that crucial component right, then the whole thing comes to a screeching halt. He luckily avoids such a catastrophe, putting the pedal to the metal in a surprising crowd-pleaser that isn’t fully running on fumes.
Brandon Vick is a member of The Music City Film Critics’ Association and the Southeastern Film Critics Association, the resident film critic of the SoBros Network, and the star of The Vick’s Flicks Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @SirBrandonV and be sure to search #VicksFlicks for all of his latest movie reviews.
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