“Gran Turismo” Movie Review
When you start at the top, the only place to go is down. Most successful directors cannot relate to that, for they generally start at the bottom and take years to reach that desired promised land of power and influence. Neill Blomkamp is not most directors.
The South African filmmaker was just 29 when his feature debut, District 9, opened to great critical acclaim in 2009. On a relatively modest budget of $30 million, it went on to gross over $200 million worldwide at the box office, its only big name belonging to producer Peter Jackson. Despite being a science fiction film about aliens, the allegorical tale went on to compete for major awards, drawing four Oscar nominations including Best Picture and, for Blomkamp personally, Best Adapted Screenplay. Blomkamp’s sophomore feature as writer-director, Elysium, came four years later and in a mold quite similar to his breakthrough, with a dystopian future setting, action-heavy climax, and narrative rich with social commentary. Even with a much higher budget, Elysium turned more profits for Blomkamp and TriStar Pictures, although public and critic enthusiasm was more muted.
Blomkamp struck out with his third film, 2015’s Chappie, about a robot police officer captured by gangsters, a disappointment both critically and commercially. The director’s downhill slide did not stop there, however. After having made some of the worst comedy shorts you can find on the Internet (some apparently too embarrassing to even warrant mention on his Wikipedia page), Blomkamp returned to feature filmmaking with the shoestring budgeted pandemic horror film Demonic (2021), providing new career lows.
Blomkamp’s name does not feature in the marketing for Gran Turismo, his first for-hire job. It is clear, however, that there is no novice at the helm here. Adapted from the racing simulation video game series of the same name, this second PlayStation Productions movie is gladly more than just a feature-length advertisement, for it is based on a true story that places it in the inspirational sports drama mold. Your enjoyment of the movie will most likely correlate with your appreciation for the franchise that has been a gaming fixture since 1997 and with how willing you are to classify car racing as a “sport.”
Jann Mardenborough (Archie Uchena Madekwe) of Wales loves Gran Turismo. He doesn’t want to return to school and doesn’t want to follow in the footsteps of his father, retired footballer Steve (Djimon Hounsou). Dad does not approve of the gamer life and he dismisses Jann’s dream to get into racing as unrealistic, which seems like a sturdy argument until Nissan marketing executive Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom) hatches a plan for the best Gran Turismo racers around the world to attend something called GT Academy, a crash course that will look to turn the single best recruit into an actual competitive race car driver.
If this didn’t really happen, that premise would be easy to deride as far-fetched. The one engineer that Danny can get to oversee the undertaking, former racer Jack Salter (David Harbour, “Stranger Things”), does nothing to hide his skepticism towards the project. But rather than kowtow to a prissy racer, Jack heads up GT Academy, pushing the aspiring racers to get into shape and be decisive behind the wheel.
If racing isn’t your thing, this is not the movie for you, as the inevitable training/elimination montage hypes the activity as this noble calling that few are cut out for. Of course, Jann is one of the few and he becomes Nissan’s driver after narrowly edging out a smug competitor.
You can probably predict most of what goes down here. Jack gradually starts believing in Jann and mentors him through the challenges to qualify for the circuit. The campaign faces opposition from traditional racers, who scoff at the notion that dedicated video gamers could do what they do. There is a deadly crash that looks like it could extinguish Jann’s flame. And, believe it or not, even Dad comes around for an apologetic monologue.
It’s only formulaic and familiar if you’ve seen a lot of inspirational sports dramas and Gran Turismo seems to be aiming at younger audiences who might not have seen movies like Remember the Titans and Hoosiers. Blomkamp does bring some dynamism to the proceedings. His two credited editors get to sink their teeth into a choice project, at times seeming like the true stars of a movie that isn’t overflowing with them. Of the actual cast, Harbour does shine, elevating what seem to be obvious turns and cookie cutter sequences into something interesting and nearly moving. He doesn’t quite hit those Denzel Washington in Titans or John Candy in Cool Runnings highs, but for someone younger and less jaded he might.
Coming at the tail end of summer and during two major industry strikes, Gran Turismo does not carry the greatest of commercial expectations. With a budget of $60 million, this is mid-range studio cinema, a class that has grown obsolete in this age of behemothic effects extravaganzas and inexpensive counterprogramming. It is a mediocre movie that is essentially designed to close out the summer season (which has given us exactly three high quality blockbusters) and give way to adult-oriented, awards-minded fall fare. If this time of year does not make you think about the new school year, you’re probably just as ready for fall movies as I am.