I’ve long ago grown bored of racing sims, and that includes Sony’s bestselling Gran Turismo games. The last thing I could think of being at all interesting is a movie based on watching people trick out racing cars. But Sony was smart, and rather than making their Gran Turismo movie based on the game, they made a movie that told a true story about how their game is so authentic, it can literally change a gamer’s life. You can sense how proud they are to tell this story and of the game’s accomplishment. The messaging roars in your face like a high-powered engine on full throttle. And while the self-serving commercialism unavoidably runs rampant, it’s impossible to deny the sheer crowd-pleasing thrill of the race, and the unlikely underdog who went from gamer to racing champion.
I don’t know if Gran Turismo is the first video game movie based on a true story (That would be Doom, no? j/k), but with eSports a billion-dollar industry I expect it won’t be the last. The film centers on British teen Jann Mardenborough, played by Heart of Stone actor Archie Madekwe, whose life largely consists of kicking up dust in Gran Turismo, and he’s got the brand new shiny steering wheel peripheral (Sony brand, of course) to show for it. While Jann insists it’s a racing simulation and not just some video game, his father (Djimon Hounsou) think his son is wasting his time. There’s no future in playing video games, after all, don’t ya know?
Everything changes for Jann when marketing mad genius Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom) makes a pitch to Nisson execs to launch GT Academy, a large-scale competition between the best Gran Turismo players, with the winner earning a spot to hit top speeds behind the wheel of an actual car for an actual racing team. Danny’s thinking is that the 80 million players are an untapped market of dreamers, who are just dying to get excited about cars again.
The beginning of Gran Turismo sorta plays out like the four-wheel version of Air, with Bloom as the ambitious Nike exec played by Matt Damon. And I guess that would make Jann his Michael Jordan. But then who would David Harbour’s Jack Salter be? Harbour gristles frustratingly and growls like a drill sergeant as Salter, a former race car driver whose career flamed out early, but of course he “could’ve been one of the best” if he’d just stuck it out. Now he’s a salty, disapproving engineer in charge of keeping these soft, armchair racers alive. He’s not going to be impressed by any of them, until Jann does, naturally.
After winning the competition, the film kicks into fairly traditional racing movie mode. Jann endures the disgust of the veteran racers looking down at this gamer intruding on their territory. He endures actual races against legit competition, putting Nissan’s reputation and investment at risk with every turn, every throttle, every split second decison. The races are thrilling, edge of your seat awesome under the guidance of director Neill Blomkamp, who seems so jazzed at helming big-budget action movies again. The District 9 and Elysium filmmaker has been out of the spotlight for a while, but Gran Turismo reminds us how kinetic his style can be. The screen lights up with HUD displays ripped right out of the game, with bells, whistles, and crazy angles that put you right into the driver’s seat. An over-reliance on montages takes some of the joy and spirit out of it, especially as we need to be there to feel it as Jann gets the tacticle, visceral sensation of real racing.
It’s a double-edged sword that the film’s story follows such a linear, familiar road that you could easily forget the whole video game aspect. But those racing story beats are time tested and still work today. There’s nothing like the thrill of the race, with one man behind the wheel putting his life on the line to cross the finish line.
Madekwe gets off to a slow start as Jann, and for a while I was worried the film would be saddled with an uncharismatic lead. But it could have something to do with Jason Hall and Zach Baylin’s screenplay, which is pretty conventional by sports movie standards. Certain lines of dialogue sound like they were written by corporate suits in a boardroom somewhere, while the overwhelming crush of Sony product placement is an unintentional running gag.
Tremendous liberties are taken with Jann’s story and his accomplishments, but since most people have never heard of him, none of it will matter. As someone who knew of the reality, it didn’t affect my enjoyment at all. I was still sucked into Gran Turismo and was along for every lap, willing Jann to hit top speed and take the checkered flag. It’s so good as to possibly inspire a new generation of Gran Turismo players, or to inspire former players like me to get behind the wheel once more.
Gran Turismo opens nationwide on August 25th.