I wasn’t quite sure what to make of “Gran Turismo” when it was announced. I was even more confused when by the ‘Based on a true story’ tagline. I’m not nor have I ever been into the sport of racing on any level, and I have even less of an affinity for racing games in general. And yes, if we’re laying all of cards out on the table, I’m an Xbox guy through and through, so the marque Playstation racing simulator is not something I have much experience with. Heading into “Gran Turismo,” I had very little frame of reference outside of the basics; a video game biopic adaption based a real story of a gamer kid turned real racer through playing the game really well. None of that sounds intriguing to me, and given the long tumultuous history of both video game adaptions and subpar, insufferable biopics, my expectations were set rather low.
Thankfully, “Gran Turismo” overcomes its cliche ridden narrative to deliver an engaging, high octane thrill ride, one that soars when it hits the track with stylish action set pieces, elevated performances, and is executed well enough to really leave you on the edge of your seat.
Directed by Neill Blomkamp (“District 9“) from a script by Jason Hall (“American Sniper“) and Zach Baylin (“King Richard“) “Gran Turismo” tells the real life story of Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe) whose gaming skills earned him a spot at the Nissan GT Academy, where they trained “sim racers” to become real ones and earn a spot on the professional Nissan team. Created by Nissan Marketing Executive Danny Moore (played by Orlando Bloom who is not real person but based on the actual creator of GT Academy Darren Cox) his crazy idea is approved by the board on the condition that a chief racing coach with experience help avoid liability in the event this dangerous gamble doesn’t pay off. The only one crazy enough to take the job is former racer Jack Salter (another made up character played by David Harbour) who hopes to prove this whole experiment is a bad idea, but soon develops a bond with Jann and helps him strive toward his dreams of being real racer.
On the surface and even at its core, “Gran Turismo” unfolds like a check the box list of biopic cliches. Despite Hall and Baylin having rather solid track records, they imbue the script with just about every single trope in the book. Rebellious kid with a dream? check. Disappointed and unsupportive parents? check. Innate talent that far exceeds his peers? check. Disgruntled coach who hates him but comes around in the end? Check. Training montage? Bully subplot? revisionist history timeline? Check, check, and check. There isn’t a single biopic or based on a true story trope that doesn’t find its way into the film. It is so cliche ridden it gives “Bohemian Rhapsody” a run for its money. And no, I will not stop slandering that unbelievable mess of a film that somehow found its way into the Oscars, for which I have no forgiveness or apology for and will never stop highlighting such an egregious insult to our fine world of cinema. But I digress.
In most of these cases, we’d spend the rest of the review hammering points about story and narrative and how all of these things went wrong and what it means for video game films and biopics. Luckily, this film overcomes all of its narrative shortcomings by being completely riveting in its action set pieces and having a cast that works overtime to elevate the material.
Blomkamp feels completely in his element here, and like the themes that run throughout, he directs action with confident conviction and commits. Beyond the tropes, the action is consistently thrilling, and draws you in even if you don’t care about racing or gaming. There were moments where I was legitimately on the edge of my seat, with Blomkamp creatively finding new ways to frame his action and deliver some truly stunning visuals. Jacques Jouffret’s cinematography is some of his best work, and “Gran Turismo” thrusts you into the cars and puts you in the driver’s seat as often as it can.
Harbour is electric, once again proving why he is one of the best everyman actors working today. Every trope in “Gran Turismo” should make Harbour’s character flat and forgettable, a sort of void that has be filled but isn’t all that important to the overall story. Instead, Harbour digs deep into the themes of conviction and commitment and adds thick layers of emotional depth to an otherwise hollow, invented for effect character. You become wholly invested in his relationship with Jann, and both characters work to overcome their written restrictions. The same goes for Madekwe, who makes a real splash here in the lead. Once he pairs with Harbour, he draws on the veterans strength and again layers his character with emotion not found in the pages. Even the brief appearance by Djimon Hounsou as Jann’s father is elevated, another role that should be nothing but a by the numbers turn instead feels personal and earnest. We really don’t give Hounsou enough credit for all he does when he appears in these kinds of things, and “Gran Turismo” smartly uses his skills to breath life into a rather lifeless character.
There’s not much else to really say about “Gran Turismo.” You’ve seen this sports biopic a thousand times, and it doesn’t really do much to reinvent the wheel or add anything to the genre. But what it lacks in the screenplay it makes up for with pulse pounding action, strong visual aesthetic, and powerful performances. These strengths make it hard not to get swept up into the dream of it all, and “Gran Turismo” solidifies itself as a genuine crowd pleaser. Truthfully, I don’t think the tropes and cliches will bother the average movie goer as much as they do myself, primarily because I see so many movies in a given year I notice them more quickly and more often. Still, even the average movie goer should be able to predict just about every single beat in “Gran Turismo,” but it does just enough to make its formulaic story and predicability irrelevant because of how much fun the film ends up being.
It may play fast and loose with history of actual events, but c’mon. This is Hollywood; none of this is actually real even when it’s based on real events. Sensationalism and dramatization are staples of the genre, otherwise we could just watch documentaries and call it a day. Yes, “Gran Turismo” combines years of reality and reorders them to fit the narrative, but the real Jann Mardenborough served as the stunt double for his own movie and a consultant on the film, so its not like Hall and Baylin excluded the man from his own retelling even if the “Gran Turismo” film isn’t quite the most accurate version. You can read all about the years of Mardenborough’s racing career anywhere online if you feel you need the real account of his life and accomplishments. But if you’re here for what “Gran Turismo” is selling, which is thrilling action set pieces and everything “Fast and Furious” wishes it could be, then you’ll leave satisfied.
‘Gran Turismo” isn’t necessarily a good movie, but it is very well made and hard not to enjoy. Sometimes we just wanna watch cool cars go fast and cheer for the impossible dream. On that front, “Gran Tursimo” delivers in spades and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how much fun you’re having watching the film.
Now I gotta add some Kenny G and Enya to my workout playlist.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars
“Gran Turismo” opens in theaters August 25th. You can watch the trailer below.