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film review

Gran Turismo

  • Directed by Neill Blomkamp
  • Written by Jason Hall and Zach Baylin
  • Starring Archie Madekwe, David Harbour and Orlando Bloom
  • Classification PG; 134 minutes
  • Opens in theatres Aug. 25

Gran Turismo isn’t a straightforward video-game movie, as in, it’s not trying to bring a fictional narrative previously rendered on 64-bit consoles (or whatever) to life. That’s because it’s dealing with the Pinocchio of video games, a “real driving simulator” – as its branding insists – that authentically recreates the sounds and grooves drivers would experience on the road. Only a real story would do for this video-game movie and the marketing department already had one revved up ready to go.

In 2008, Nissan executive Darren Cox launched the GT Academy, a partnership between the car manufacturer and the developers behind Gran Turismo. They plucked the best Gran Turismo players and plopped them into real race cars to train and compete professionally. Jann Mardenborough, the young British man who entered the GT Academy in 2011 and placed third in Le Mans a couple years later, is arguably their greatest success story; a new hope for gamers, erm, simulators, everywhere.

Gran Turismo, the movie from Sony Pictures, is ostensibly about Mardenborough – who is played with bland agreeability by Archie Madekwe – but it’s really about the brands. District 9 director Neill Blomkamp is here steering a marketing stunt about a marketing stunt, a victory lap for corporate synergy.

On that front, Gran Turismo is in good company this year, coming out alongside fellow brand reappraisal turned hits, Air and Barbie. But Blomkamp’s movie only has a fraction of Barbie’s playful self-consciousness. And no one in the film is giving soul-stirring monologues like we get from Matt Damon, not just in Air but also that other movie about racing in Le Mans, Ford vs. Ferrari. Damon is among the very few stars who can hunch over and drum up enough conviction to sell us on stories positioning mass manufacturers like Nike and Ford as underdogs.

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Gran Turismo, on the other hand, has Orlando Bloom with greased back hair, playing a fictionalized take on Cox as though he’s telegraphing awareness of the product he’s selling. Bloom’s Danny Moore is a Nissan executive giving used car salesman energy. He opens the film with a spiel for the Nissan board: the way to sell is by sparking interest in driver culture. He suggests doing that by tapping into extremely online kids with the GT Academy and putting them behind the wheel.

Somewhere out in the Matrix is a gamer who could be the second coming of real salt-of-the-earth race car drivers, Danny pontificates, first to the board and then to crusty racing coach Jack Salter, who is played with sufficient saltiness by David Harbour. According to Danny, the messianic driver would be the PlayStation-bred inspirational antidote to spoiled rich kids who enter the sport free of economic barriers. And he would bring hope to gamers everywhere, proving that their online expertise has currency in real life.

As the cynical Salter, Harbour is the only actor in the cast able to acquit himself well, perhaps because for most of the movie his character is sneering as we would at gamers who think they could Last Action Hero their way into the real world. Salter, like us, will eventually eat crow.

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When we meet Madekwe’s Jann, he’s playing Gran Turismo in his bedroom. The movie has this cute (for a minute) gimmick where Jann’s elaborate PlayStation setup becomes enveloped in CGI that visualizes his immersion in the simulated racing experience. The scenes on the tracks, shot practically with the real Mardenborough doubling as a driver, return the favour. Video game graphics pop in, breaking up reality to bring us back to that PlayStation experience. The product placement comes full circle.

Gran Turismo can never rise above its stakeholder’s portfolios because it’s never interested enough in its human characters. Jann’s underdog story leans on familiar arcs and montages, while supporting characters outside of Harbour are purely decorative. That includes Jann’s parents, played by Geri Halliwell Horner (Ginger Spice adding absolutely no flavours) and Djimon Hounsou, who gives a better performance as the skeptical worrying father than the movie deserves. A romantic interest played by Maeve Courtier-Lilley shows up for a throwaway interlude while Jann is racing in Japan. Their date looks like it’s directed by an influencer making a TikTok about the night life in Tokyo.

The cringiest indication that Gran Turismo is not a movie that can be taken seriously comes during an emotionally heavy section following a legitimately harrowing car crash that claimed a bystander’s life. Everything is resolved when a Sony MP3 player changes hands.

At the least, Gran Turismo gradually delivers some satisfying race scenes shot with the same IMAX-approved cameras used for Top Gun: Maverick. The images weaving in and out of race cars are strong enough to fill the IMAX screen without ever feeling like they’re pushing it to the limit the way a Tom Cruise movie would.

For someone like Cruise, doing things for real is just the starting line, not the finish.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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