For the longest time, making a good movie based on a video game was one of the toughest nuts to crack in the entertainment industry. Part of the problem was that far too many tried to make a basic genre film within the universe of what was, at least for the time, a very limited framework and medium. Games like Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter are straightforward pieces of fun with a singular objective, to beat the snot out of your opponent, and thus didn’t really lend themselves to a cinematic narrative, especially in the 90s. The same was true for the likes of Doom, an amazing first-person shooter that relied on the heart-pumping action from a nameless protagonist that the player could project themselves onto. So naturally, giving someone like Dwayne Johnson and others a bunch of dialogue in a paint-by-numbers sci-fi action flick fell relatively flat. The original Super Mario Bros. film tried to make a sprawling adventure out of what was then just a 2D platforming series, with no massive lore or universe to fall back on, and as such the resulting fever dream was a disaster.
This is not to bash those previous attempts entirely. Hell, Mario and Mortal Kombat still have special places in my adolescent heart for sheer camp value alone. But thankfully, over the last few years the Hollywood machine has seemingly figured out the formula after much trial and error. The likes of Detective Pikachu, Sonic the Hedgehog, and The Super Mario Bros. Movie have succeeded because of character-driven stories that develop and emphasize the appeal of the digital mascots at the center of it all, and then putting them in a fun story that either relates to the in-game world or feels at least recognizably similar to the lived experience of the viewer.
But what do you do if your game doesn’t have a well-known lead? Is it possible to still create something satisfying? These are the questions director Neill Blomkamp (District 9) and writers Jason Hall and Zach Baylin (American Sniper and King Richard, respectively) try to answer with Gran Turismo. Rather than creating a fictional universe around the premiere racing simulation series, the game is the catalyst for a standard — but still entertaining — sports movie, based on the life of a player who actually parlayed his prowess in the game into a career as a professional racer.
I was a bit nervous when I saw this, mostly because its original release date of August 11 was scrapped, sort of, in a move blamed on the SAG strike. However, the film still had two “sneak preview” weekends before finally getting its full release on the 25th. You can understand why I’d be skeptical of such a move, as the strike wouldn’t logistically cause a two-week delay, because there’s no point in pulling a project from the schedule for this reason if you don’t reschedule it for when you think the strike will be over, thus allowing your cast to promote the film and do press tours. No, pushing it a fortnight more signals that the project isn’t all that good, and you’re aiming for a better slot to make bank, with this weekend offering only Retribution and Bottoms as realistic competition for new releases.
As it turns out, the film does have myriad, glaring flaws. But as I said, it’s still mostly enjoyable, especially if you want to look at it as the last true “popcorn” flick of the summer. There are issues with the story and presentation, particularly in one moment that feels especially tone deaf, but despite the more formulaic elements, this is a fun movie with a decent cast and some production elements that are far more ambitious than what you’d expect from a picture based on a game.
The story revolves around the career of Jann Mardenborough, a young man in Wales who dreams of racing cars, played by Archie Madekwe from Midsommar; in a fun bit of behind-the-scenes action, the real Mardenborough served as Madekwe’s stunt driver for the racing scenes). He lives out those fantasies through the Gran Turismo video games, and has spent years designing racers and upgrading his equipment, to the point that his home console is essentially the cockpit of a racecar, complete with wheel and button tap gear shifters. He has a loving family, particularly doting mother Lesley (Geri Halliwell — yes, Ginger Spice plays a middle-aged suburban mother here, in case you want to feel ancient), but his father, former pro footballer Steve (Djimon Hounsou) and academy trainee brother Coby (Daniel Puig) encourage him to get a “real” job because he can’t make a living as a gamer. This is a bit rich coming from a former pro athlete and an aspiring one, where competition is fierce and very few make it big, but their hearts are in the right place, as their criticisms are at least somewhat constructive. Steve, who now works at a rail yard, wants his son to make a backup plan so that he can have a good life once his passion is over, and all of them emphasize the progressive nature of hard work within a system to achieve your goals, a structure that didn’t fully exist in 2011, when these events took place.
However, his chance at glory is presented to him through an unlikely source, as Nissan marketing executive Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom) pitches to his superiors in Tokyo the idea of creating a sports academy based on the GT games, and give regular people a chance to qualify through their electric skills and train to be real racers. As one of Europe’s top online players, Jann gets an invite to a compete and wins a spot at the academy, learning under the intentionally harsh tutelage of former racer and engineer Jack Salter (David Harbour), a composite character most likely based on Mardenborough’s real-life mentor Ricard Divila. The two form a bond based on Jann’s intimate knowledge of cars and his creativity on the track, which aligns with Salter’s intense training that hammers home the fatal dangers of strapping yourself into a ton of steel going over 200 miles per hour. Jann bests the others in the camp and is given a racing contract contingent on securing his racing license, and eventually, making the podium at the 24 Hours of Le Mans race to prove that simulation drivers have just as much right to be behind the wheel as those brought up through traditional racing systems.
This is all well and good, but it is decidedly rote. The creators have explicitly stated that they were going for a sort of Rocky meets auto racing meets video gaming vibe, and that’s exactly what they delivered (a relatively simple task for Baylin, who co-wrote Creed III). Jann is an underdog with not a lot of prospects, he gets an unorthodox chance to compete at the highest level, and the point is much more to go the distance than it is to win. He makes incremental progress to establish himself as a legitimate contender rather than a champion. Along the way he picks up a gruff guardian figure in Salter (think of him as the Mickey in this equation), a temporary adversary who becomes a friend in academy favorite Matty Davis (Darren Barnet, essentially playing Apollo Creed to Jann’s Balboa), an existential rival in the form of Nicholas Capa (Josha Stradowski) who has been groomed for success through wealth and technology (basically Ivan Drago), and an unlikely love interest in Audrey (Maeve Courtier-Lilley; her character’s name being but a syllable away from Adrian). If Madekwe and Harbour (and occasionally Bloom) weren’t giving such charismatic performances, this would be downright trite.
It also doesn’t help that a lot of story potential is sacrificed in the name of commercialization. Like any other game-based entry, this film is by its very nature a feature length ad for the Gran Turismo games, but it goes dispiritingly further than that here. It’s also a clear public relations stunt for Nissan, with their branding all over the affair. And of course, since GT is a Playstation franchise, that means this is a Sony movie, and the product placement is cringe in the extreme. There’s a literal scene where Jann is on a date with Audrey in Tokyo, and he makes a point to stop at a shop to buy a Sony-branded MP3 player as a gift for Jack, who only listens to cassettes on an old Walkman. Actual minutes of the movie are devoted to this, and it’s meant to be indicative of their rapport. That is fucking PAINFUL.
It could be more easily forgiven if the story was willing to take a few risks, but sadly it isn’t. You don’t have to have Jann sign with Nissan, or even involve Nissan at all. You can easily license another car company, or just leave it ambiguous, and chalk it up to the creative liberties needed for the adaptation process. It wouldn’t be anywhere near as egregious as some of the other decisions made in that name, one of which I’ll get to shortly. Along those same lines, Danny is a fun character, at times creeping up to the line of antagonist, as he vacillates between high-minded ambition for the academy and cold-blooded marketing strategy. He tries to prevent Jann being declared the winner of the camp (he wins by a razor-thin margin) because he’s not as “camera ready” as Matty, and wants to stop Jann from making a maneuver in a race that could damage the car and be bad for PR. If this angle had been explored more, and he was closer to a corporate villain than the one-note Capa, it could have been really intriguing, but of course that would mean making Nissan look less than perfect, and we can’t have that, now can we? Third, the aforementioned personal entertainment device nonsense obscures one of the more delightful character dynamics between Jann and Jack, as the former has a habit of listening to new wave easy listening music from the likes of Kenny G and Enya to calm himself before a race, while the latter is into old heavy metal like Black Sabbath. It’s a great soundtrack juxtaposition, and reduces the pair in a fun and novel way. But we can’t spend too much time on that, because, you know, Sony’s gotta Sony.
That said, the worst offense of all is the pivotal setback at the end of act two. During a race at the Nürburgring track in Germany, one apparently famous for its dangerous curves and aerodynamics, Jann gets into a serious crash, killing a spectator and dashing his own confidence. This moment is used to motivate Jann to overcome his fears and self-doubt, and rejoin the circuit to prove that gamers have a place at the table.
This was very much not a good choice. Someone literally died in this crash, and it rings as completely disingenuous to present it as an opportunity for the protagonist to realize his potential. It’s even followed by a press conference scene where Danny gives the standard condolence speech to the victim’s family in the most cavalier and dismissive way possible.
That’s borderline sick, to treat the traumatizing extinguishment of a human life as a plot point in someone else’s “inspirational” story. Then again, I’d expect nothing less from the writer who portrayed a mentally ill, trigger-happy soldier as an American hero because he killed “savages” in Iraq from long distance. But what makes it even more tasteless is that this wreck, while I’m sure the real Mardenborough was deeply affected emotionally by it, happened in 2015, years after the other events of the film. This is what I mean by artistic license being used improperly. A freak accident that happened outside of the story’s timeline is shifted into it in order to signify Jann’s turnaround? That’s messed up, y’all. It’s especially bad when you consider that it wasn’t even needed. One of the stepping stones of the plot is Jann getting his racing license, something he has to accomplish with a top four finish in the span of six races. We see the results of all six races, one of which ends in a DNF because he crashed. Why not just have THAT be the tearjerker, “get up off the mat” scene? The writers have already established that they’re willing to dispense with accuracy for the sake of the narrative, so just jangle his nerves there, in a moment where no one is hurt and which actually fits perfectly fine into the series of events. I understand that the image of the crash looks cool, but sacrificing basic decency for its sake is not okay.
All that said, I still recommend this film to a certain degree, because despite the problems, there are a lot of things that Blomkamp gets right. The cinematography, sound design, and visual effects are amazing, upping the ante from the likes of Ford v. Ferrari a few years ago. The drone photography on the tracks is thrilling, giving the viewer almost impossible angles that blend seamlessly with the digital and CGI transitions. The actors are given a direct, close-up perspective in the cockpit thanks to the removal of the windscreens and a clever bit of engineering where the pedals and brakes are actually wired and routed to a harness seat on top of the vehicles, so that the real Mardenborough and other stunt drivers can literally pilot while the cast reacts naturally to the speed. That’s just fucking brilliant! Finally, in a fun bit of interactivity, Jann’s zen-like connection to the game and the track is illustrated perfectly by animating various car parts around him that assemble into a whole as he races in both contexts, conveying his passion in a fantastic visual.
In the end, that’s how Gran Turismo as a movie somewhat solves the conundrum of adapting video games of a niche genre. A run-of-the-mill racing flick with GT branding would undoubtedly suck. Just look at 2014’s Need for Speed if you want proof. Instead, what Blomkamp pulls off here is an immersive experience with a focused human element, using the game as a backdrop rather than the — forgive the pun — driving force. I have severe misgivings about the narrative elements and the naked capitalism, but on the whole the work is balanced out by the superlative visual style, fun dialogue, and committed performances that elevate the plot structure just slightly above the standard sports movie tropes. As the film itself asserts, one wrong move can be catastrophic. That almost became the meta epitaph for the entire project. But there is just enough to enjoy that you won’t feel guilty for getting occasionally caught up in the moment and applauding the triumphs.
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