From its very premise alone, Gran Turismo sets itself apart from the tired tradition of terrible video game adaptations by choosing to focus on a mostly true story. Basing his film on the real life of racer Jann Mardenborough, director Neill Blomkamp (Chappie) has created not only a great racing film, but also one of the best video game adaptations in existence.
Gran Turismo presents Jann (Archie Madekwe) as a largely directionless department store clerk. He knows that he wants to be a racer, but his father (Djimon Hounsou) constantly reminds him that he lacks the money and athleticism to succeed. Meanwhile, Nissan marketer Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom) sets up a contest to turn Gran Turismo players into real racecar drivers. Since Sony immediately recognizes this as a horrible liability, Danny has to bring in failed racer Jack Salter (David Harbour) as chief engineer to ensure nobody dies. Naturally, Jann winds up making the cut.
If it isn’t already obvious, the main problem with the film is a terrible lack of tension throughout most of the first half. Even those unfamiliar with the real Jann Mardenborough can already guess that this movie wouldn’t exist if he didn’t ultimately pass Sony’s training academy to become a real racer. This rips the dramatic tension from pretty much every race until he begins his professional career. Only then does the movie take shape as a narrative about success through trial and grit. Arguably, it only succeeds in this by bending the truth.
If the viewers are meant to be inspired, then one might assume they’d see Jann’s numerous failures throughout his career, only to then be told how he overcame them. Ironically, the real Jann met far fewer failures in his early career than portrayed in the film. Yet the film’s greatest error is the manner in which it glosses over these fictional failures entirely. The audience is shown a wrecked car and a mere caption noting that he placed poorly, yet the actions that led to these failures are completely unexplained. As a result, there’s no true inspiration until a nearly career-ending crash (which happened about two years later in real life than in the film) causes Jack to ramp up Jann’s spirits with a personal backstory that most of the audience could have predicted anyway.
These sound like harsh criticisms, but they should not dissuade anyone from seeing the movie. It may fail as an inspirational narrative, but it succeeds in literally everything else a movie should do. Nearly every one of Harbour’s lines elicits audible laughter from viewers, yet the harshness of his dialogue never detracts from the clear concern he has for his racers’ safety. Likewise, Hounsou’s role as the disapproving father never steers too far into cliché, as it’s always apparent that he merely doesn’t understand his son’s love of Gran Turismo and wants to keep him safe from dying in a fiery car crash. His remark that Jann “looks so young” while watching his son on TV drives this home beautifully.
As for the racing itself, every scene is gorgeous. It doesn’t hurt that the real Jann Mardenborough did the stunt driving for his actor. Since the audience is reminded constantly of Jann’s unusual tendency to ignore typical racing lines, having the real driver behind the wheel gives these scenes an air of legitimacy. Meanwhile, Blomkamp made the unusual decision to have Jann’s simulated games portrayed as if he were in a real car, while many of his actual races are portrayed as if he were in a video game. It’s a bizarre choice, but it works in showing how Jann’s love of the game translates into his love for real racing.
Gran Turismo is hardly a perfect movie. It claims to be based on a true story, while completely reorganizing Jann’s life to make its narrative stronger. However, fans of racing, video games, and movies in general will still find this to be a wonderfully enjoyable experience, if for no other reason than the stellar cast and smart directing decisions behind it.
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