The Plot: Jann (Archie Madekwe) is a young man with the need for speed. That is, within the videogame realm of the Playstation videogame Gran Turismo. He’s logged hundreds of hours and laps around the world’s greatest racing courses, knowing each turn and what is required of him to get to the finish line. He’s approached to take part in an innovative online tournament run by Nissan marketing executive Danny (Orlando Bloom) to find the best online driver… to drive a racing car for real and compete against the industry’s best. To get there, he’ll need the help of burnt-out former driver turned chief mechanic Jack (David Harbour). Jack thinks that Jann and the other online drivers haven’t got what it takes to race for real in 200mph racing cars against the sporting elite, but there’s something driving Jann…
The Verdict: Welcome back to the big screen, Neill Blomkamp. The talented South African director had been doing some soul-searching following the so-so reaction to Chappie, working on a number of short films and low-budget lockdown streaming experiment Demonic. The film that got him back where he belongs is Gran Turismo, blasting its way onto the screen with resonant revs of engines and screeches of tyres. Another videogame adaptation then? Not quite. This one has a different engine running it and a powerful one at that. It tells the true story of Jann Mardenborough, who progressed from playing the Gran Turismo racing game at home to competing on the track with the industry’s professionals. Though, it would be more correct to describe the game as a simulation built on technical accuracy from the ground up. Racing from your bedroom is a different prospect though from racing in a car with G-forces, heat and the ever-present risk of injury and even death.
The script by Jason Hall and Zach Baylin takes an admittedly familiar sporting underdog story – the cocky outsider competing against the sporting elite – and spins that out into a story of real-world ambition, drive and commitment to be the best. Or at least come close to achieving glory on the podium. There’s nothing too innovative going on in the plot mechanics then, which rotate efficiently anyway. Blomkamp appears to know this in approaching it with his direction, giving into the familiar beats (an arrogant rival on the real track, a potential love interest), but then subverts expectations about where this story might actually go. This underdog is also under-estimated. The videogame simulation will only do so much, so Blomkamp doubles down on the realism of the scenario – even using the real Mardenborough as a driving double for actor Archie Madekwe and committing to shooting the races for real rather than use CGI.
Gran Turismo is perhaps the closest an audience has come to being in the driving seat. Blomkamp sets up multiple cameras to track Jann’s movement on the track (helpfully guided with a digital flag) so that you can feel the roar of the engine, every twist and turn and every metal-smashing crunch of a car crash. It’s an impressive enough feat of filmmaking to experience – and this is very much a racing car experience that benefits from a large screen and thumping, throbbing sound. It’s slickly made for sure, but there is an involving human story at play here which grounds the danger with real-world consequences. The core relationship is between Jann, Jack and Danny. Madekwe, Harbour and Bloom respectively work wonders beyond what’s written on the page to make their characters more lived-in and relatable. Harbour, in particular, is excellent in taking an archetypal role (the inspirational coach with a guilt complex) and making it his own by measuring each word and sentence for narrative impact. He’s the beating heart of the film and moves from gruff instructor to loyal sidekick with ease.
Gran Turismo could have just been another summer blockbuster, a videogame adaptation with low expectations… but no. It’s got heart, soul and guts aplenty. While it plays into familiar beats, it also genuinely surprises throughout. It comfortably zooms ahead of the competition without breaking a sweat, revving into pole position with its impressive attention to detail. Strap yourself in and hold on tight.