Gran Turismo Movie review – visceral racing mixed with lacklustre characters

Thomas Harrison-Lord
Sony turns to race cars for its latest video game adaptation, mixing a hypersonic sense of speed with a true-to-life story and tepid character development.
Gran Turismo Movie racing cockpit

The relentless push for the Japanese tech giant to turn its PlayStation franchises into TV programmes and films continues unabated. Hot on the heels of HBO’s The Last of Us rendition and the Uncharted adaptation follows not God of War or Horizon, but perhaps surprisingly the Gran Turismo movie.

Directed by Neill Blomkamp (District 9), this is not the story of laser scanning tracks or recording the V10 gargle of a Lamborghini Huracán – although a Netflix-style documentary wouldn’t go amiss.

Instead, the setup is to show that video game players are talented enough to become motorsport competitors. This exposition is based on the true story of aspiring racing driver Jann Mardenborough, played here by Archie Madekwe (Midsommar) who, in 2011, won the GT Academy competition that took Gran Turismo drivers from their consoles to the real-world Nissan motor racing team.

“These are the fastest sim racers in the world,” intones Orlando Bloom’s (Pirates of the Caribbean) cocksure Danny Moore character, who is credited with the creation of the programme.

Once the car manufacturer is onboard with the idea, he’s trying to convince grizzled former racing driver and current mechanic Jack Salter, played by David Harbour (Stranger Things), to join in.

“You really think you’re gonna take a kid who plays video games in their bedroom and strap them to a 200mph rocket – it’ll tear them to pieces,” warns Salter.

GT Academy Gran Turismo Movie

However, fed up with overseeing talentless millionaires, such as Nicholas Capa of the eponymous Capa Racing outfit, he signs on.

His task is to train the wannabe Tom Kristensen’s of the world and help pick out a winner, before guiding them through the unscrupulous motorsport industry.

Mardenborough is the main focus of your attention, the plucky teenager incongruously listening to the dulcet tones of saxophonist Kenny G and Enya pre-race, one of only a handful of humorous moments.

The moments of character development, be that concerned parents or love interests, are often interrupted by someone striving to explain the importance of cars driving on track or close-ups of paddle shifters or camshafts.

Archie Madekwe and David Harbour Gran Turismo Movie

Challenging topics are discussed with irreverence, and in the latter third, the justification for going racing again following a harrowing incident is weaker than a rusted exhaust.

“This is not a game, this is reality,” chimes in Slater. Yes, well aware, thank you.

Still, the sense of speed and video game-aping camera angles are captivating. Mauro Calo, of Top Gear and The Grand Tour fame, was involved in the stunt driving, and you can tell. Cars slew sideways in a dramatic style. A pack of Nissan GT-Rs are separated by a gnat’s whisker at 150mph – you almost feel the disturbed air.

Madekwe successfully conveys someone with determination, initially a little out of his depth in a relatable fashion. It’s not quite the visceral acting seen in Top Gun Maverick‘s fighter jet scenes, but I rarely felt like the lead character wasn’t actually driving.

Gran Turismo Movie Le Mans

There’s a sprinkling of clever nods to the gaming franchise throughout, be that characters watching Gran Turismo content creators such as Super GT on YouTube or on-screen displays and menu noises straight from Polyphony Digital.

The way it uses a CGI creation of a car around the sim rigs is a clever metaphor for how seriously some virtual drivers take their esports, and somewhat surprisingly for Hollywood, the correct terminology is used throughout without looking down on the genre.

But then we cut back to the story, and while Harbour is really trying, the script he’s working with is repetitive.

“I’ve done this [track] a thousand times,” argues Mardenborough.

“But not in reality,” fires back Harbour’s Salter. Okay, we get it already.

Gran Turismo Movie Capa Racing

‘Bro’ and ‘dude’ are banded around without conviction, and the battle against antagonist Capa doesn’t hit you, as the on-track rival only has one tiny scene to make you hate them.

If you think of recent successful motorsport movies, Rush and Ford v Ferrari (Le Mans ’66), they hinge on a clash of personalities. I can’t help but feel that by not developing on-track rivals deep enough outside of the circuit, it robs Gran Turismo’s final furlong of much-needed impact.

Also like the Niki Lauda and James Hunt biopic, which used Brand Hatch extensively and sometimes in reverse, true motorsport fans will notice the over-use of the Hungaroring here – although, perhaps most viewers won’t.

It doesn’t delve deep into the relationship between parent and child as they strive to pursue dreams, nor explore the pressures of expectation on young minds. The only message I gained from a Nürburgring crash scene was that motorsport is dangerous, which is hardly ground-breaking.

Gran Turismo Movie filming

“This entire thing is a marketing extravaganza,” proclaims Moore. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if he means the GT Academy programme or the film itself, as we are treated to another Nissan logo, Fanatec steering wheel or Sony MP3 player.

A likeable central character and visceral racing scenes are mixed with over-simplification and an unessential supporting cast. But, it shines a light on sim racing, and I think that’s something we can all get behind.

Gran Turismo: Based On a True Story, the movie, is released to theatres 9th August 2023 in the United Kingdom, between 10-11th August across Europe, Canada and Australia and 25th August in the United States.

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