Film Review: Gran Turismo is confident at the wheel when enhancing its video game origins

  • Peter Gray
  • August 9, 2023
  • Comments Off on Film Review: Gran Turismo is confident at the wheel when enhancing its video game origins

Though there are the occasional exceptions, movies based off video games don’t have the greatest reputation when it comes down to it.  So it makes sense that, perhaps, there’s a certain sense of trepidation when going into Gran Turismo.  Despite the calibre of the creatives both behind and in front of the camera – it’s directed by Neil Blomkamp (District 9), its screenwriters have penned such acclaimed efforts as American Sniper (Jason Hall) and Creed III (Zach Baylin), and it has reliable talent in Orlando Bloom and David Harbour front and centre – there’s still no guarantee that they’ll collectively collaborate in a manner that’ll transcend expectations pertaining to the fact that this is still a film born from a video game centred around professional speed racing.

Thankfully, because the act of driving professionally has lent itself to impressive features over the years, Blomkamp, Hall and Baylin haven’t taken it upon themselves to literally transfer what happens in the video game and put it on screen.  Instead, they’ve crafted a drama with the classic rooting-for-the-underdog mentality surrounding the youth who played the game and transferred that passion to a career in professional race car driving.

That youth is Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe), who devotes every waking moment to playing the Gran Turismo simulation game, harbouring a passion for racing itself – something he hopes to pursue professionally.  His parents, Steve and Lesley (respectively, Djimon Honsou and Geri Halliwell Horner – yes, that is the pop packet formerly known as Ginger Spice for those playing at home), are more divided on his “hobby”, with his mother wanting to keep the peace and nurture his drive, whilst his father is more strict, oft-flexing reality checks about the unlikeliness of his son succeeding in such a field.

The marketing team behind the video game itself – in one of those incredibly fortunate coincidences that drives our narrative forward – have concocted an idea that will hopefully prove fruitful, intending to merge the skills of their most devoted, talented players with the reality of the very race tracks they have conquered through simulation.  Danny Moore (Bloom, who is pretty much there to serve as the film’s hype man) is the optimistic face behind the campaign, a marketing “all talk” type who manages to convince former pro driver Jack Salter (Harbour, arguably the film’s strongest component) to mentor his school of young drivers and prep them for the stage – literally.

At 135 minutes, Gran Turismo admittedly overstays its welcome, especially in the film’s earlier stages where it gives us an insight into Jann’s homelife.  It’s not to say we didn’t need background on his character, but it never delves into anything too deep beyond him being compared to his younger brother, his father’s aforementioned frustration at his apparent lack of ambition, and an infatuation with a local girl that the film would like us to believe is akin to a great love.  And, to be honest, a film like Gran Turismo is primarily designed to entertain through its racing sequences and, thankfully, Blomkamp is intelligent enough to utilise his skills as a genre director throughout, enhancing the film’s racing sequences with a visual aesthetic and intensity that may surprise many a viewer.

Once the film focuses on Jann’s acceptance into the racing academy and his quick rise up in the ranks, Gran Turismo starts to feel like a more organic piece regarding its mixture of action and emotion.  Madekwe and Harbour share an easy, natural rapport that helps us earn an investment in their relationship, and when the life-threatening dangers of what it is to be a professional driver become reality in arguably the film’s most affecting sequence (even Horner, who I’m sure many would be questioning as a competent actress, delivers as a mother witnessing the horrors of a race crash), there’s a sombre dose of actuality that grounds what has, up to a point, been a fluffy slice of escapism.

Whilst the film may have too much “story” for fans of the video game, and those after a racing drama may be thrown by the film’s inclusion of its video game roots – the manner in which Blomkamp occasionally films driving sequences or implements certain visuals that speak to the creative intricacies of the game itself – Gran Turismo, for the most part, finds an acceptable balance.

Whatever flaws the film does have though, it can’t be denied how much love and respect has gone into Gran Turismo as a whole.  Blomkamp clearly cares for Jann as a person – the end credits reveal the real Mardenborough served as the stunt-double for Madekwe’s driving sequences – and for every grand “Hollywood” moment (Bloom’s slightly overdone performance speaking to a certain sense of theatricality) there’s a quieter, more human touch added – like the fact that Jann calms himself before every race by listening to Kenny G and Enya – that reminds us that, as much as the film invites us to escape, this is a reality that only reiterates how much stranger it can be than fiction.


Gran Turismo is screening in Australian theatres from August 10th, 2023.

Peter Gray

Film critic with a penchant for Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa, Michelle Pfeiffer and horror movies, harbouring the desire to be a face of entertainment news.