Video game adaptations are having one hell of a year. From the billion dollar juggernaut The Super Mario Bros Movie and the highly-acclaimed tour de force that is The Last of Us HBO series, we’re finally seeing more credibility brought to . Gran Turismo, the classic PlayStation racing game, or, racing simulator, as the film insists, is different from most game adaptations. Based on a true story of professional racer Jann Mardenborough, this is more of an underdog story in the vein of Rocky or The Karate Kid with race cars.
Jann (Archie Madekwe, Midsommar) dreams of being a racecar driver, but coming from small-town Cardiff, Wales, he has little experience behind a normal car. He spends his time playing Gran Turismo at home, to the dismay of his disapproving father (Djimon Hounsou). When Nissan marketing exec Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom) proposes a race among the best Gran Turismo players across the world to compete for a shot at becoming a licensing race car driver, Jann is among the ten chosen. Jann, and others must compete against each other in a race to prove they have what it takes to become the real thing.
His first studio picture since his infamous 2015 flop Chappie, Neill Blomkamp directs his best, most consistent film since his 2009 breakthrough masterpiece, District 9. Penned by Oscar-nominated writers Jason Hall (American Sniper) and Zach Baylin (King Richard), Gran Turismo follows the tried-and-true underdog sports movie formula. Although it takes an unexpected dramatic turn later on which adds a more sobering wrinkle into the usual crowd-pleasing beats, there aren’t many surprises. From David Harbour’s role as the grizzled coach/former race prodigy Jack Salter, with his cynical “you’re just a gamer” attitude, to the underdog in Jann, a gamer who has never set foot inside of a race car, cliches are alive and thriving in Gran Turismo. However, it’s executed with more than enough skill and steered by commanding performances. Harbour’s performance is even better than a film like this, with a script so pointedly two-dimensional, deserves. Madekwe has a welcoming charisma to him that makes you identify with his aspirations fairly quickly. Jann isn’t a unique character by any stretch, but he’s nevertheless an inspirational lead. Djimon Hounsou is Jann’s disapproving father, underutilized, but excellent in a moving heart-to-heart scene late in the film. Geri Halliwell aka Ginger Spice is Jann’s sympathetic mother.
Blomkamp is an undeniably gifted visual artist with ambition. With a routine script, he’s able to take a formula so foolproof, and maximize its theatrics. The racing scenes are thrilling, with Blomkamp’s sharp display of distinct visuals. Car stunts are captured with assurance and Blomkamp flexes bursts of tension amid some of the stunt work. In fact, Blomkamp helms some of the best racing sequences since Ron Howard’s tense Rush or even The Wachowski’s bold Speed Racer. Blomkamp blurs the reality of the game and with actual racing, utilizing visual motifs from the games and slick shot compositions. Jann calms himself in the moment by imagining the world around him, down to his car and the other drivers, as part of the game, allowing Blomkamp to incorporate angles from the game that feel more natural rather than feeling like a commercial. Drones are used to capture some spectacular stunts, getting up close to the often thrilling action. Overhead shots of cars emulate similar angles from the game, but are used appropriately to enhance the style.
Gran Turismo rides a tried-and-true formula, but it’s a well-oiled entertainment machine. This is easily Neill Blomkamp’s best film since District 9 and even if the film lacks surprises, it never ceases to be anything but entertaining.
Gran Turismo is now playing in theaters.