Director Neill Blomkamp’s racing sequences, and a soulful turn from David Harbour, make underdog sports drama Gran Turismo well worth watching.
There’s a moment in Gran Turismo where 20-something rookie driver Jann walks through the clatter and din of a pit lane, looks around at the crowds lining the stands, and taking a breath, clambers into his Nissan GT-R. In those few seconds, we get the sense of tension and claustrophobia that must come from strapping on a hot, cumbersome crash helmet and sitting behind the wheel of a 200 mile-per-hour racing car. The fogginess and distortion that comes from viewing the track through a plastic visor; the grumble and roar of the car’s engine raging under the bonnet.
The scene’s all the more striking because Gran Turismo is, at its core, an advert for a video game. The movie opens with the creation story of Gran Turismo itself – the series of racing simulators developed by Sony’s Polyphony Digital, which began in the late 1990s PlayStation era and have become more realistic and tuned with each release. We see loving shots that caress modern classics like the coveted Honda NSX. There are crisply-lit scenes of designer Kazunori Yamauchi overseeing the painstaking scanning and re-creation of those cars for his game.
There’s at least a narrative point to all these scenes, though. Gran Turismo the movie tells the real-life story of Jann Mardenborough, a British racing fan whose dedication to playing Gran Turismo (the game) sets him on the path to becoming a real-world professional racing driver. Played here by Archie Madekwe, Jann’s an ordinary, somewhat reserved youth who has big dreams for someone of relatively humble origins; generally, racing drivers don’t come from working class families. To make matters trickier, Jann’s ex-footballer father (Djimon Hounsou – who’s great in a thinly-drawn role) disapproves of the countless hours his son pours into hurtling round virtual tracks and perfecting his own racing lines in Gran Turismo.
The disapproving parent is, of course, a staple of underdog sports movies, and Gran Turismo rarely deviates from the formula: there’s the gruff mentor figure, the vain and arrogant rivals (one drives a gold-wrapped supercar branded with ads for champagne maker Moët & Chandon – subtle), the smiling love interest, the setbacks and triumphs. Just about every character and beat of Gran Turismo’s screenplay – credited to Jason Hall and Zach Baylin, with Alex Tse getting a ‘story by’ credit – has its equivalent in the original Rocky or its modern spin-off, Creed.
If Gran Turismo is a formulaic advert for a racing simulator, though, it’s at least one made with conviction. Its first masterstroke is the casting of David Harbour as ex-racing driver Jack Salter, whose human, warm performance injects life and soul into the archetypal mentor figure. As Jann’s trainer, he has an easy chemistry with Madekwe, and even when the script hands him yet another generic “this ain’t a video game, kid” line, Harbour mines a rounded character out of what he’s given. It’s an unexpectedly soulful performance, and one that provides a grounding counterpoint to Orlando Bloom’s broader, hammier turn as Danny Moore – the oleaginous marketing exec who comes up with the GT Academy idea in the first place.
Gran Turismo’s other driving force is director Neill Blomkamp. His previous movies, all genre pieces, have demonstrated his flair for contrasting technological sheen with grunge and grit. It’s something he brings to the slick motorsport world of Gran Turismo, and the effect is transformative: Blomkamp brings a real tension and danger to his driving sequences, and when accidents happen, the sense of heat and brutal physics is borderline startling. The story itself may follow a rigid template, but the racing scenes are shot with a rawness and brio. The technical quality of the filmmaking is such that it’s not only difficult to spot the joins between live-action footage and CGI, or actor and stunt driver, but you become too absorbed to even think about it.
After the box-office disappointment of Chappie, the collapse of his Alien 5 project, and the gloomy reviews for his lockdown horror, Demonic, there’s an “I’ll show you what I can do” element to Blomkamp’s work here, in what in theory could have been a director-for-hire role. Gran Turismo lacks the sophistication and emotional depth of, say, James Mangold’s Oscar-nominated Le Mans ’66 (a film that was clearly aimed at an older audience), but for this writer, Blomkamp’s racing sequences are equally pulse quickening.
The sense of peril, and the likelihood that the GT Academy’s rookie drivers could suffer a horrifying collision at any moment, only serve to underline something only briefly touched on elsewhere in the narrative – taking a bunch of young driving sim enthusiasts and plonking them behind the wheel of a racing-tuned supercar seems like an unfathomably dangerous thing to do. It’s the kind of hare-brained marketing stunt that would seem far-fetched had it not already happened in reality.
Gran Turismo’s plot plays lip-service to the madness of the whole scheme, preferring instead to present it as an uplifting story about triumphing over self-doubt and the dogged pursuit of impossible dreams. Neill Blomkamp’s always there, though, underscoring the feel-good factor with a dash of tangible, sometimes brutal realism. He captures the seductive, glamorous side of motorsport, but also its harshness, where cars are like unpredictable, untameable beasts, and the smallest mistake can have deadly consequences.
Between the human performances of Madekwe and Harbour, and the kinetic power of Blomkamp’s direction, Gran Turismo emerges as something far more than a sterile advert for a video game – and that in itself is quite an achievement.
Gran Turismo is out in UK cinemas on 9 August.
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