Although it definitely isn’t a front-runner for any miniature golden statuettes, Gran Turismo, the new
Nissan/Sony advertisement underdog sports drama from Sony Pictures, did make us laugh. Out loud. Well, just once actually, early in act one, when Orlando Bloom’s character says something along the lines of ‘this whole thing is one big marketing stunt’. That pretty much sums up what’s going on here.
Light-hearted, high-octane fun
In case you haven’t seen any promotional material for this film with ‘based on a true story’ plastered everywhere, the events depicted here actually happened… more or less. Gran Turismo (the film, not the game) follows the story of Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe) and his rise from Gran Turismo (the game, not the film) sim racer to real-life professional racer after winning the 2011 European GT Academy competition. He’s coached by a gruff, washed-up former racing driver (David Harbour) and has to contend with nay-saying parents (Djimon Hounsou and Geri Halliwell Horner) who don’t see a future for their son as a professional sim racer.
The competition that gave him a chance to ascend beyond their doubts was the brainchild of Darren Cox, the Nissan marketing exec Bloom’s character is based on. It materialised after he was able to convince Nissan and Sony of the marketing value of training sim racing gamers into real-life racers.
The value couldn’t have been that high seeing as we’ve only had one movie from the GT Academy’s eight-year run and 22 winners, including one South African. Still, if you’re Sony and someone wants to use your best-selling video game franchise to make you more money, it’s probably tough to say no… and it shows.
Through Gran Turismo’s (the film, not the game) 195-minute runtime, we could never shake the feeling that there were producer-driven ulterior motives when it came to certain script and filmmaking decisions. And we’re not just saying that because there’s a Sony or Nissan product in every second shot.
It’s entirely possible that the writing team of Jason Hall (American Sniper) and Zach Baylin (King Richard) were having an off day when they wrote this screenplay. But they’ve both been nominated for Academy Awards before so we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt that our struggle to connect emotionally with the characters and their banal remarks was entirely their fault.
Sometimes that could be because the actors missed the mark, but even great actors can only do so much with a weak script. Madekwe, a relative newcomer, delivers a likable performance as Jann, particularly in a later scene with Hounsou, as the father and son reconcile. Harbour’s performance as the entirely-fictional hardened former-racing-pro-turned-reluctant-mentor of the bedroom rookie is probably this film’s biggest redeeming factor, while Bloom’s ever-optimistic Danny Moore was endearing but bordered on annoying at times.
We were really hoping for a reason to gush about South African-Canadian Neil Blomkamp’s direction as fans of his previous feature films and experimental short films – except Chappie – but unfortunately, we’ll have to keep our gush contained.
At times, Blomkamp managed to bring video game elements across to this film effectively, like a Gran Turismo-esque (the game, not the film) heads-up display and racing line overlay. And there were one or two visually striking CGI shots of Jann’s race car being assembled part-by-part around him in his bedroom. These moments briefly blurred the line between game and film, making us think back to our time playing the game and how immersive it was – especially if we’re talking about GT 7 on PS5.
But, more often than not, those moments were let down by trying too hard to appeal to the gamers in the audience. The CGI assembly of the car was cool for the first few times but not long after we couldn’t help but roll our eyes. Then there’s that cop chase scene and “Cop avoidance achieved!” Yikes.
Some of the shots in the racing set pieces seemed to pay homage to the early Fast & Furious films with shots that take you through the engine block past firing pistons. The first few times were cool, exhilarating even. But the choppy, snap-cut editing style got old fast and did little to imbue the film with the reserved character of the video games.
We wouldn’t consider ourselves hardcore fans of the GT video game franchise. We’ve spent several enjoyable hours in a few of the entries, including the latest one on PS5. While we had a few of those Leo DiCap pointing-and-whistling-at-the-screen moments when a familiar element from the game popped up, we would’ve liked to see more. So we don’t think die-hard fans expecting a faithful adaptation of their game will be very impressed. Soundtrack appearances from Enya and Kenny G are the closest you’ll get to the game’s fondness of elevator-style smooth jazz.
This actually happened*
*Just not in the way that they’re showing here.
If this is your first time encountering this story, we’d advise you to proceed with caution – as you should with any piece of media that purports to resemble the truth. This isn’t the first movie to add a liberal measure of creative license to its source material. But you can only add so much creative license before ‘the truth’ stops being true and turns into its own fictional story.
We get it. Most people’s lives are boring, so you have to spice things up to keep the producers happy. If that means having your character play the latest release of the video game series that made them famous on the latest console instead of a 13-year-old game on a 12-year-old console, sure, go right ahead. If it means you put your character in a flashy modern car from your film’s biggest sponsor (that viewers might one day buy), go for it. While you’re at it, you could even add a completely fictional scene where your character evades the police in their father’s no-name sedan to show off their skills.
But if you’re going to alter the timeline of events so as to drastically change their meaning and completely fabricate motivation for your character, maybe go easy on the whole ‘based on a true story’ schtick. You’ve left ‘the truth’ in your rearview mirror at that point.
Gran Turismo verdict
Despite the generous amount of creative license added to the real-life events of this story, mediocre screenplay, and hit-and-miss visual effects, Gran Turismo still manages to be a somewhat entertaining sports underdog story and emerges as ever-so-slightly greater than the sum of its parts. Even if it falls victim to nearly every cliche of the genre along the way.
Petrol heads and casual fans of racing games are bound to enjoy it if they’re careful with their expectations. Dedicated Gran Turismo (the game, not the film) fans will need to do the same but might have a harder time doing so if they’re hoping for the same dignified-yet-quirky spirit from their beloved game in movie format.
Kazunori Yamauchi, the creator of the video game series, does feature briefly – as a character played by Takehiro Hira and in a cameo role. We’ll leave that for you to find.