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REVIEW – “Gran Turismo”: Mild Backseat Direction Keeps Video Game Adventure on Course

Archie Madekwe (Finalized)
Archie Madekwe stars in Columbia Pictures GRAN TURISMO. Photo by: Gordon Timpen

Big-budget films centering around the world of auto racing tend to be a dime a dozen, with a handful of notable benchmarks. Same for films rooted in video game IP, where the range has never been more diversified. And that is the position director Neill Blomkamp (District 9) has landed himself in, alongside writers Jason Hall (Thank You for Your Service), Zach Baylin (Creed III), and Alex Tse (Watchmen). A welcome chance to pull the two together by unconventional means, and an unexpected, true story. Gran Turismo might be the last property we’d expect to be adapted from console to big screen. It’s a racing sim, first off, with no preexisting narrative to follow. Just a long-standing legacy to uphold as a key PlayStation franchise, with no pressure.

And these games have only grown in popularity due to their illusory realism, mirroring the harsh reality of drivers on a professional course. So much so, that a short-lived GT Academy had been formed to recruit gamers showing exceptional skill and detail toward the game, and train them for the physical demands of a real-life course, within a competitive atmosphere where the highest-scoring applicants would score a partnership with a major auto partner, on their way to a pro career.

In this fictional adaptation, dates adjusted to reflect modern times, it’s the brainchild of London-based Nissan marketing exec Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom). His idea is to tap into that untouched market of 80 million GT players who are not necessarily the driving type in the real world and instill both the spirit of adventure and the underlying responsibility. Racing is dangerous. Danny’s on-field engineer and academy trainer Jack Salter (David Harbour) knows that feeling all too well and makes it clear safety is the top priority for all competitors.

And that goes especially for their star pupil, 19-year-old Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe). A scrappy Welsh kid living in the shadow of football dad Steve (Djimon Hounsou) and doting mom Leslie (Geri Halliwell Horner, aka Ginger Spice). His commitment to his games is like eating, breathing, and sleeping. It’s crucial to his survival, and he knows the skills learned can help him achieve pro status if he works his way up. His brother Cai (Daniel Puig) is indifferent, his crush Audrey (Maeve Courtier-Lilly) is eager to follow him along, and his dad sternly disagrees. He emphasizes to Jann there’s no serious career in racing, nor is it athletic. Nor does it justify several foolish mistakes that are lightly brushed across, such as joyriding and underage drinking. What better way to rehab those behaviors than by discovering the road of life head-on?

Blomkamp recognizes the pressure involved with treating both Jann’s story and the pull of this franchise with the utmost respect. Whilst also striving to mend a bridge with a Sony studio mindset that once extended their olive branch with middling rewards (re: 2015’s Chappie). The stakes are modestly high on their end, following up from last year’s spin on Uncharted. The realm of first-party PlayStation games taking a theatrical dive suddenly means major business if it hadn’t already. The GT series could only simmer grudges, raise the adrenaline in the room, and detangle the mind as a driver becomes one with their souped-up car. Nothing’s changed much across 25+ years and eight key releases, that freeing intensity carrying a sharp, cacophonous pulse. If nothing else, Blomkamp just knows how to take that up one level, balancing a playful fondness and a serious reality. Far from Transformers-level schlock, the symbiotic relationship between car and driver is firm at hand, revving as a unified force of power.

And both concepts manage to share the same broad visionary style. An expansion of quirks considered dormant roused awake in the director’s hands. By way of in-game first-person tunnel vision recreations, cinematographer Jacques Jouffret (Mile 22) mixing those perspectives with tender profiles and busier action shots with uniform consistency. Editors Austyn Daines (Demonic) and Colby Parker Jr. (Kandahar) assembling a million rapid cuts and freeze frames signaling split-second changes in pace and tone, echoing the game with a regular music video flair. Sound editor Kami Asgar (Half Brothers) accurately recreating the familiar whirs, buzzes, and deep growls of 150 mph. And multiple clever nods to favorite courses, vehicles, or product placement, under the detailed eye of production designer Martin Whist (The Harder They Fall). The latter is a tad extreme for a Sony picture, but still satirically on point. Moment of silence for their classic orange headphones from the old days.

The level of technical proficiency on Blomkamp’s watch all but commands over any manner of character-building on the same track. Seeing Jann’s story, it’s nothing short of entertaining. It’s just missing some finer details, mostly with the prodigy’s homelife. His family turns to an eventual afterthought by the second hour in favor of his growing up on the fly, with Jack stepping in, to a fault, as a rough and tumble father figure. We get the idea, at least, that a reliable support system is difficult to come by, and that even with having found his tribe the real world might not fully see the viability of his aspirations. But it doesn’t push any harder than momentary setup in Baylin’s handbook. And that might be an insult to Hounsou as a character actor, his impact showing bite before it’s casually brushed aside. There simply needed more of him and Halliwell to go around, be more of a serious presence even when relegated to distanced onlookers.

Archie Madekwe (Finalized);David Harbour (Finalized)
Archie Madekwe and David Harbour star in Columbia Pictures GRAN TURISMO. Photo by: Gordon Timpen

Look past the seeds of Jann’s evolution as a diligent adult, and the ride goes down far smoother. This, despite a slightly disorganized, condensed approach to the passage of time. It’s a likely alternate universe where the Academy still exists into the franchise’s 25th anniversary, and where Jann’s fated 2015 Nürburgring crash occurs only to hobble his confidence. Neither Madekwe nor Harbour is ever swayed by any thematic missteps, Blomkamp still staging his driving sequences with tension aplenty.

That Karate Kid-like trainer/student bond parsing new skills and opening old or regretful wounds is, for lack of better terminology, the raw core boosting GT’s emotional stock. Alongside a charismatic bloom, the duo owns the picture on charm, energy, and presence alone. Harbour is no Pat Morita; he is way more grizzled, crotchety, and delightfully self-deprecating toward his pupils. Never soft shoeing through the facts nor the fears, his process only adds to a fully complex individual working on his second chance. All as Madekwe’s character enjoys his first, keeping well attentive to just how rocky the road shapes out with an ardent, often weary-eyed slyness. Jann serving as his stunt double on set only links the two close together, often sharing the same brain cells.

Mardenborough’s story might have stuck a little more closely to the facts. But I could understand why some liberties were made to improve its on-screen thematics. A clear line is drawn when aspects of the truth change order and skew in an altered direction to benefit one’s script. Blomkamp might not see that line as promptly as the viewer might, likewise for any surprise value in play, which is moderate at best, better than most sports biopics.

What matters primarily in the director’s hands is how best to emulate the high-riding spirit of the source material, embracing the joyful immersion of open-road driving just like one could in their gaming chair. With Gran Turismo, Blomkamp is a way off from his magnum opus. Despite his very slight mistakes, his spin into the familiar, oft-competitive territory of big-screen autos does plenty to nudge him back to solid pole position. With time, he could return to medaling. (B+; 3.5/5)

Gran Turismo, having already screened in a trio of national one-offs, is currently running in previews August 11-13 and 18-20, before its wide bow August 25; rated PG-13 for intense action and some strong language; 135 minutes.