There are films that teeter on the brink of greatness, tantalizingly close to achieving a rare brilliance, and it’s precisely this proximity that can stir frustration when they fall short. Director Neill Blomkamp’s “Gran Turismo” is a genre-bending sports drama that flirts with wonder but falls short, eschewing deep character development and formal experimentation for straightforward enjoyment.
Yet, I found myself completely engrossed in every race, every lap, and every hairpin turn. The film’s climax, as young Jann Mardenborough (played by Archie Madekwe), who transitioned from gamer to real-life race car driver, crossed the finish line, successfully tugged at my heartstrings.
“Gran Turismo” is a unique biopic, drawing inspiration from video games while offering both distinctive strengths and recurring weaknesses. Mardenborough emphasizes that the source material isn’t a game but a simulator, where players can meticulously customize vehicles with an extensive library of parts, rivaling professional drivers. Blomkamp cleverly visualizes this realism by enveloping Mardenborough in transparent VFX cars during gameplay.
Marketing maestro Danny Moore (portrayed by Orlando Bloom) recognizes the potential of these skills and proposes a competition to GT, where the top seven gamers will train to become actual racers for the Nissan team. He enlists the experienced crew chief and former driver Jack Salter (played by David Harbour) as their trainer. Moore’s venture carries substantial risks, yet when Jack questions Moore about his motivations, Moore offers no satisfactory answer. Despite Bloom’s inspired performance, Moore’s unclear and inconsistent motivations can be frustrating.
Mardenborough’s goals are straightforward: he aspires to work on real cars. His father, Steve (played by Djimon Hounsou), a former professional footballer relegated to menial jobs, urges his son to be practical, fearing he might end up like him, full of shattered dreams. Unfortunately, the film provides limited screen time and depth for the Mardenborough family members. While there is a supportive and understanding mother (Geri Halliwell) and an immature party-loving brother (Daniel Puig), they serve only to fill brief moments on the screen. At a party, Mardenborough meets Audrey (Maeve Courtier-Lilley), a character who, disappointingly, remains static as the dream girl on Mardenborough’s Instagram feed, never evolving within the narrative.
The young gamers-turned-drivers in the GT Academy are similarly thinly drawn characters, acting more as obstacles than fully developed individuals. The Academy primarily serves as a backdrop for the evolving relationship between Mardenborough and Jack, with the latter harboring skepticism about whether these keyboard warriors possess the physical and competitive skills required for professional racing. The script by Jason Hall and Zach Baylin tantalizingly hints at Jack’s tragic backstory, but frustratingly, it remains largely unexplored.
“Gran Turismo” truly comes alive when Mardenborough progresses beyond the Academy to real racing, facing off against teams hostile to simulator racers. The film raises thought-provoking parallels with real-world concerns, such as the challenges faced by SAG-AFTRA and WGA in their battles against AI, even though Mardenborough himself is a real person. Blomkamp portrays figures like Mardenborough as plucky outsiders, reminiscent of the underdog bobsledders in “Cool Runnings.” This unexpected alignment of common sports movie tropes with real-world issues creates a compelling tension.
While the film’s storytelling occasionally falters, the tried-and-true tropes keep viewers engaged. Although one might expect the editors, Colby Parker, Jr. and Austyn Daines, and cinematographer Jacques Jouffret to synchronize with the rhythm of real gameplay and virtual visuals, the frequent freeze frames that announce the lap number disrupt the pacing, often duplicating information conveyed in the dialogue.
Nonetheless, tropes endure because they are effective. For Mardenborough and Jack, it’s a classic “us against the world” scenario. A rivalry between Mardenborough and an ultra-rich racing team injects tension, a tragic crash sets the stage for Mardenborough’s comeback story, and a poignant speech by the ever-dependable Hounsou adds the finishing touches to this captivating underdog tale. While “Gran Turismo” grapples with its share of issues, both minor and substantial—including Madekwe’s somewhat understated performance as the lead—it nevertheless delivers a thrilling cautionary tale.
Catch “Gran Turismo” in theaters starting Friday, August 25th.