Gran Turismo gets its IP-friendly name from PlayStation’s popular driving simulator and its story from reality: namely, the tale of Jann Mardenborough, the son of a British football player who, at age 19, won a “GT Academy” television-show competition that allowed him to parlay his video game skills into an actual racing career. Mardenborough’s dreams came true in a way that normally only happens in the movies, which turns out to be ironic given that Neill Blomkamp’s Sony-produced film about his life doesn’t have a reliable gasket in its engine. Great racing sequences aside, it’s so clichéd and unadventurous that it makes its source material seem deep by comparison.
First, the pretty good news—whenever it hits the asphalt, Gran Turismo (in theaters August 11) vrooms about with sleek, muscular precision. Blomkamp duplicates the video game’s shiny aesthetics both in terms of environments (all sun-dappled, leaf-strewn, twisty-turny roadways) and super-charged rides, whose tires squeal, gears shift and motors hum with requisite power.
Save for bookending CGI shots in which its protagonist becomes virtually encased in a holographic vehicle (and/or has his nuts-and-bolts ride vanish in mirror-image fashion), the director’s automotive action feels real, and it’s embellished by just the right amount of freeze frames, slow-motion, and graphical flourishes (dotted-line course trajectories, pole position text displays). It’s not quite as ferocious as Ford v Ferrari but, in this specific regard, it gets the job done.
Unfortunately, that’s about the only thing Gran Turismo does right. Jason Hall and Alex Tse’s screenplay is a jalopy that (to steal a phrase used by its characters) coasts along on rails. Jann (Archie Madekwe) is a teenager who sells underwear at a clothing store in order to raise enough cash to buy Gran Turismo peripherals, the latest being a sweet steering wheel that lets him become fully immersed in his favorite title—a notion visualized by the aforementioned computer-generated flourish.
His obsession with staying inside to play online games doesn’t bug his nondescript mom Lesley (Geri “Ginger Spice” Horner) but it bothers his dad Steve (Djimon Hounsou), a football vet who’s frustrated that his older son isn’t more like his younger athletic sibling Coby (Daniel Puig). Jann and Steve’s dynamic is explicated in about two seconds via the first of innumerable hackneyed exchanges, and it sets up the paint-by-numbers daddy issues that will motivate Jann for the remainder of his odyssey.
It must be said, however, that character motivation is a generic concept in Gran Turismo, considering that everyone is driven to win by stock impetuses: to be the best; to stick it to arrogant rivals; to overcome past traumas; to prove the worthiness of underdogs; and to earn fathers’ respect and love. Jann mostly just adores Gran Turismo and, because he’s so good at it, he lucks into the opportunity of a lifetime: to play in a single online race whose winner will be invited to the GT Academy, where he’ll compete against other simulator champions for a chance to race for Nissan in the legitimate big leagues.
This contest is the brainchild of marketing executive Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom), whose pitch to his Nissan superiors is simply exposition directed at the audience, and whose ability to single-handedly sell this risky idea is almost as supernatural as Jann’s driving talent.
Jann is initially pitted at the GT Academy against international opponents that include a jerky American, but his real adversary is Nicholas Capa (Joshua Stradowski), a cocky rich kid whose entire being is epitomized by his glimmering gold car and matching team uniform. Nicholas is the spoiled upper-crust foil to working-class Jann (whose dad now toils at a trainyard), and he’s also an enemy of sorts for Jack Salter (David Harbour), a mechanic and former accomplished driver who quits Nicholas’ pit crew because he’s a take-no-shit good guy, and who reluctantly agrees to partner with Moore because, like the gamers he’s hired to train, no one believes in him.
As the gruff mentor who puts down Jann as a means of challenging (and improving) him but, deep down, has genuine faith in him, Harbour is tasked with delivering the proceedings’ many third-rate inspirational speeches. That he does so with this much conviction is impressive, although it does little to change his dialogue’s corniness.
Jann is faced with numerous obstacles in Gran Turismo, from making the Nissan team and earning a pro license to coping with a tragic accident and facing his fears—and fulfilling Jack’s unfinished business—at Le Mans. At every turn, truisms and hyperbole vie for advantage. “I’m unstoppable,” proclaims Jann about his Gran Turismo prowess. “It’ll tear him to pieces,” warns Jack about having an inexperienced gamer drive a race car at 200mph. Later, he hammers home the distinction between gaming and professional athletics by exclaiming, “This is reality!”
When Jann takes his featureless new girlfriend Audrey (Maeve Courtier-Lilley) to Tokyo, where he’d always wanted to visit, she states, “You manifested this!” And before the finale, Steve tells his son that he’s “proud” of him, Jann declares, “Let’s be immortal!” and Jack admits, “You made me a believer…Let’s go show the world!”
Those quotes are spoilers only if you think Gran Turismo is interested in surprising its audience—which it definitely is not. From its overarching structure to its every interaction, the film adheres to tired formula, such that there’s no reason to pay attention to any moment in which characters speak to each other or do something besides drive very, very fast on scarily winding roads. A handful of easter eggs are strewn throughout (such as cutesy PlayStation sound cues) in case fanboys didn’t already feel properly pandered to by this wish-fulfillment saga. Those uncomfortable with a controller in their hand—or who enjoy drama written in more than one crude dimension—will find this “drama” just about intolerable.
Following 2021’s Demonic, Blomkamp at least confirms that he can handle the technical demands of a high-octane studio project. There’s no bright side, however, to the continued Hollywood misuse of Hounsou, who’s miles better than the mush he’s saddled with by this wreck.
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