Gran Turismo review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
Based on the hit video game, Gran Turismo is a little bit of a different video game movie. It’s a movie that manages to be about the game, a sports drama, and a true story. It’s unique in terms of the concept but also given a safe and standard big-screen adaptation. For the most part, it works, even if it just does laps around a familiar track.
The film centers around the rise of Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe), going from a British gamer in his bedroom to a racecar driver on the track. Struggling to make something of his life, he lucks out when Nissan decides to take a chance on the gimmick of top Gran Turismo players allowed to represent the racing brand. The racing expert Jack Salter (David Harbour) will be training him, bitter about his past on a racing track and reluctant to introduce gamers. They soon bond amid racing, as they have more in common than the grumpy Jack thought.
Director Neill Blomkamp certainly knows how to shoot a racing movie. He focuses the camera on the parts that matter and portrays a convincing depiction of cars functioning at high speeds. The progression is edited quickly yet knowingly, where aspects of training are given breezy montages. It’s a competently assembled movie in terms of a racing movie portrayed as being just as astute as the people behind the wheel. Blomkamp’s handling of the big race for Jann to prove himself as an exciting build-up.
Running a little over two hours, though, Gran Turismo still falls into some familiar patterns. Unfortunately, the breakneck speed of the racecar success story leads to much of the character arcs being minimalized. This leads to little time for Jann’s family problems to develop, for Jack’s dark history to be explored, or for Nissan’s public perception issues to clash further with Jann’s career goals. It’s almost inexplicable how Jann’s romance subplot is forced into the film, leaving little room for Jann and his girlfriend to bond. There’s no time for that when there’s a race to get to in the next scene. The pacing also leads to some whiplash of unique moments, such as when Jann has his ritual of listening to Kenny G and Enya before races.
It’s disappointing that the characters don’t have as much effort put into them as the racing sequences. They’re some of the best shot scenes on a racing track since Ford v Ferrari. I also didn’t mind the somewhat expected moment where Jann is given a VFX fantasy of imagining himself between the driver’s seat and his gamer chair, connecting the two to remember how he races best. The carnage of crashes is also intense, and the stakes feel present for these moments where Jann could end up dead or kill somebody. There’s some drama to evoke from that if only the film could find a way to break for its long stretches rather than speed up.
There’s also a deeper questioning of the commercialism in such a picture. Racing movies have always had this issue: when the car is unveiled, it's decked out with more advertising logos than a website’s sponsor page. Ford v. Ferrari had a similar problem but avoided the overarching forces behind the race by centering more on the characters and their drive to become a racing legend. Gran Turismo tries to do the same but has to work overtime to compensate for how everything that happens is a direct result of Nissan and game developers willing to take a chance on someone like Jann. This also leads to Sony’s Playstation brand being plastered all over a film that begins with an extensive showcase of their characters in the opening titles. It’s a bitter truth about how this film became a possibility and feels more like the prize for the gamer contest.
Gran Turismo conflicts between an excellent racing movie and a lackluster video game commercial. It’s a frustrating film for feeling like the racing moments are the meat and the character drama is the ho-hum cinematic sequences you so desperately want to skip for how little they hit. I’m sure the film’s competency in portraying racing will be a big draw for gearheads, and I’ll admit that they won me over as well. But while driving enthusiasts may appreciate the attention to detail, they may grow frustrated with the subpar character arcs and shameless Sony commercialism, where it’s very telling that the film ends not with a montage of Jann but of Sony developing their video game.