Racing Drama Gran Turismo Takes One Wrong Turn After Another
Gran Turismo is not based on the influential and incredibly successful PlayStation video game series of the same name. Does the game play a part? Of course it does. But this “based on a true story” sports melodrama owes more to The Rookie or to Bend It Like Beckham than it does to Tomb Raider or Resident Evil, making this a grounded character study with flashes of realistic racing action and not an over-the-top plotless piece of kinetic nothingness.
If only said plot was worth a darn. While what happened to Jann Mardenborough is undeniably astonishing, that does not mean his story deserved such a blasé, rudimentarily straightforward cinematic retelling. Director Neill Blomkamp (District 9) and writers Jason Hall (American Sniper), Zach Baylin (King Richard), and Alex Tse (Watchmen) do precious little to shake up genre conventions. In fact, they follow the Rocky template so closely that this could almost be considered a second or third-tier knockoff, which is honestly a shame.
Ambitious Nissan marketing executive Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom) comes up with the novel idea of launching a global competition to find the next great race car driver. The catch? These potential contenders are all going to be Gran Turismo gamers. Launched in 1997, the game is the most authentic racing simulator on the market, and Moore believes he can find a youngster with the skills, determination, and athleticism to sit in the driver’s seat of a real car and win real races out on the international circuit.
Enter Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe). He’s a 19-year-old Brit from a working-class family who loves Gran Turismo and dreams of becoming a champion racer. While his former soccer star father Steve (Djimon Hounsou), now working at an industrial railyard, urges his oldest son to set his sights on something more practical, when Jann hears of this competition he knows he has the stuff to win. But sitting behind the wheel of a real car is far different than playing a video game, and this kid has a lot to learn before he has any hope of ever setting a single step atop a championship podium.
I have no idea how closely the writers follow Mardenborough’s actual path to superstardom (from what I understand plenty of liberties were taken), but even if this film was note-by-note and beat-by-beat authentic that would not lessen how unremarkably unsurprising everything turns out to be. Even the picture’s best character, the totally fictional former racer Jack Salter (David Harbour), is manufactured from a mountain of ripe cliches, and this sadly means much of his speechifying, on-track antics, and well-intentioned mentorship falls frustratingly flat.
What does work, however, is Harbour’s performance. Every scene he’s involved with has energy. It has pizazz. There is a spark of uncertainty that rumbles underneath the surface every time his character is around, and considering much of the film’s second half rests squarely on Salter and Mardenborough’s relationship, that’s for most of the film’s 134-minute running time. Harbour takes the cliché role of the grizzled, disillusioned former-pro-turned-cantankerous-mentor and makes it sing, and in the process almost makes this humdrum piece of half-baked pabulum worthwhile all by himself.
The truly annoying thing? The primary reason the reasonably strong performances don’t elevate the picture to being worthwhile is that other than for a couple of noteworthy sequences (including one stunning crash), the racing sequences are not very good. For an innovative visualist like Blomkamp, this isn’t just shocking, it’s borderline inexcusable. I’m not asking for the action to rise to full-on Cinerama 70mm awesomeness — John Frankenheimer’s 1966 melodrama Grand Prix already has that covered — but could we at least get something as good as say Tony Scott’s Days of Thunder or James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari? That’s all I’m asking for.
But unfathomably Blomkamp drops the ball. All of the racing is either over much too quickly, showcases no sense of drama or pace, or is completely devoid of anything approaching viscerally kinetic energy. The drone shots have no rhythm. Most of the remaining visuals are no more exciting than what you’ll see during a random Formula 1 broadcast on ESPN, sometimes even less interesting than that.
I’m also mad that the film wastes Hounsou. While I’m not going to come down too hard on the script for pushing the father-son story into the deep recesses of the background, I will say having an actor of this caliber vaguely stalking around the periphery of the key dramatics is a massive missed opportunity. Hounsou delivers one magnificent monologue right at the end, but instead of being this rousing, cheer-worthy moment between Jann and Steve, it’s instead only another in a long list of wrong turns Gran Turismo irritatingly takes one right after another.
Film Rating: 1½ (out of 4)