‘Gran Turismo’ Review: Neill Blomkamp’s Race Car Drama Fueled by Strong Cast

Archie Madekwe and David Harbour anchor this fast-paced true story

"Gran Turismo"
"Gran Turismo" (CREDIT: Courtesy of Sony Pictures)

Gran Turismo” is a film of contradictions. On the one hand, it’s a video game movie while on the other it’s a true story about how a video game turned one of its players into a legitimate racecar driver. It’s a film aimed at fans of said video game, but not quite a feature built for the whole family. While it’s good in the moment, it’s doubtful you’ll must up much recognition of it within the next few months.

The film tells the story of Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe), a teenage boy trying to figure out his path in life. His father Steve (Djimon Hounsou), would love to see Jann go outside and experience life, but the young man would rather spend his day playing the racing game, Gran Turismo.

On the surface, Jann’s story has all the hallmarks of a typical formulaic family film. Jann has a dream his father doesn’t understand and becomes impassioned to prove Steve, and everyone in Jann’s hometown, wrong. The twist is how that’s accomplished through a video game. Enter down-on-his-luck Nissan marketer Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom), who sees catering to Gran Turismo players as a surefire way to get people to buy Nissan cars.

Jann, no surprise, gets invited to participate in GT Academy where he, along with several other players, are trained by racecar veteran Jack Salter (David Harbour), who believes putting teenage video gamers into racecars is a bad idea; he’s not wrong. From there the film settles into a routine of training episodes, with Jann working his way up to eventually compete in the legendary Le Mans racecourse.

“Gran Turismo” owes its life to racing movies of the past, from Ron Howard’s “Rush” to Steve McQueen’s 1971 feature “Le Mans.” Cinematographer Jacques Jouffret does a wonderful job of capturing the thrill and fast-paced action of the racing sequences. Even in moment when Jann is just playing Gran Turismo in his home, a CGI car starts forming around him with the camera giving this moment as much weight as watching Jann actually on a track.

But what elevates this beyond the standard video game fare is its script, penned by Jason Hall and Zach Baylin, as well as Harbour and Madekwe’s dynamic. The script foregoes making this a racecar drama and more the story of fathers and sons, and the desire to rise above one’s destiny. In Madekwe’s hands, Jann isn’t a typical gamer nerd but a car enthusiast who finds more opportunities to embrace his hobby in the world of a game. Outside of that, he makes time with a girl he likes and spends time with his family (outside of Hounsou, ’90s kids will geek out over Jann’s mom being played by Geri Horner nee Halliwell of Spice Girls fame).

Once Jann is in the Academy, he’s presented as an underdog who isn’t media savvy in comparison to the more charming Matty (Darren Barnet). But that what makes Jann such a good character, that he is just a regular kid thrust into unique circumstances. By the time the first hour of the film has finished, Jann is on his way to becoming a series racer and the Gran Turismo element of the movie closes up. This is where the script gets stronger as it becomes the story of whether Jann can be respected as a real racecar driver.

This second half is also where Madekwe and David Harbour bounce off each other. Where Jann and his father can’t talk, he’s able to find an easier relationship with Jack. Harbour starts out the movie as the comic relief character who seems to continuously speak for the audience that gamers turned racecar drivers is a recipe for death. But as Jack and Jann spend more time together, Harbour is able to bring in more vulnerability and, dare we say, dad energy to keep you invested. He also has a running joke about listening to old school rock and roll on a Walkman that helps bring in some fantastic needle drops.

This is Madekwe and Harbour’s movie so it’s no surprise everyone else is just left in their proverbial dust. Orlando Bloom is fine as the money guy, though too often the movie plays things like he might turn into a villain which might have made him stand out more. Hounsou is also good — he always is — but is stuck in dad mode, with just one great moment in the finale.

“Gran Turismo” works best because it eschews its video game origins quickly before settling into a standard race car film. It’s unknown how fans of the game will respond to the movie — no one watching the movie in this critic’s theater pointed out any specific game Easter eggs — but on the whole fans of racecar films should be in for a good time.

“Gran Turismo” hits theaters Aug. 25.