Once upon a time, ‘Tron: Legacy’ and ‘Oblivion’ director Joseph Kosinski was tapped to direct the big-screen adaptation of Sony PlayStation’s popular racing-simulation video game, ‘Gran Turismo.’ His past two movies at the time proved he has an eye for stunning and kinetic visuals, making him the right man for the job for ‘Gran Turismo.’ But after the news came out in 2015, Kosinski’s attempted (cinematic) race to the finish line failed to materialize.
It would have been an interesting what-if scenario should Kosinski remain attached to the project. While he did get to direct his own racing movie in an upcoming F1 film starring Brad Pitt, Neill Blomkamp was eventually enlisted to helm ‘Gran Turismo’ instead. The latter’s name doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, given his inconsistent track record. It doesn’t help either that his last movie, ‘Demonic’, marked the director’s new low for the otherwise bright filmmaker, who first made an impressive 2009 debut of ‘District 9’.
Not to mention the ‘Gran Turismo’ trailers that have been released throughout its marketing promotion barely convince me this is going to be the pedal-to-the-metal cinematic ride I’m looking for.
But this is one of those rare cases where looks can be deceiving. And it sure applies well with ‘Gran Turismo,’ which initially made me dismiss it as another Neill Blomkamp’s flop-in-the-making. Surprisingly, after spending watching the movie in its entirety, Blomkamp’s ‘Gran Turismo’ manages to prove me otherwise with a better-than-expected hybrid of video game adaptation and a true-story racing drama. The movie opens promisingly with scenes of how Kazunori Yamauchi (Takehiro Hira), the creator of ‘Gran Turismo’ designed the titular racing simulation game with his team.
However, the story here isn’t about the creator himself but a British young man named Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe). When he’s not working, he spends his time playing the ‘Gran Turismo’ console game at home. He’s an expert who knows the game like the back of his hand, from winning the race to modifying the cars and studying every race track. But his dad (Djimon Hounsou) feels he’s wasting time playing video games and should be more practical like his brother (Daniel Puig), who is currently training hard as a footballer.
Jann refuses to give up no matter how discouraging his dad turns out to be. His persistence subsequently pays off when he is selected to compete against the world’s best sim drivers in a ‘Gran Turismo’ contest.
The prize? A lucrative spot to be trained as a professional race driver at GT Academy with Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom), the motorsport marketing executive who successfully pitched to Nissan in the first place, oversees the whole project. Moore recruited retired racer Jack Salter (David Harbour) to train the gamers to race like professionals. But the latter is skeptical about them succeeding in their training. There are, of course, eventual failures, but Jann manages to beat the odds by winning the race at the end of the training.
Blomkamp, who directed Jason Hall and Zach Baylin’s screenplay, sticks to the underdog-story formula that we have seen many times before (Stallone’s seminal ‘Rocky’ quickly comes to mind). It’s the kind of predictable story beat that seasoned moviegoers can guess what will happen from A to Z. While this may automatically seem like an uninspired piece of work, Blomkamp’s confident direction proves otherwise. He does a good job striking a fine balance between executing a video game adaptation and the true story of Jann Mardenborough’s incredible journey from a gamer to become a successful professional racer.
The former is particularly evident with Blomkamp’s absorbing video-game look and feel from Jann’s perspective (a scene where the protagonist imagines himself in a ‘Gran Turismo’ game while driving an actual race car is one of them).
The based-on-the-true-story angle may have been conventional, but at least the story is efficiently told apart from some unnecessary subplots (Jann’s relationship with Maeve Courtier-Lilley’s Audrey could have been excised altogether since it serves more as a filler). Speaking of Jann, Archie Madekwe shows he has what it takes to lead a movie. He is ably backed by the supporting cast, notably Djimon Hounsou as Jann’s stern father and Orlando Bloom’s enthusiastic marketing executive and the head of GT Academy, Danny Moore.
But David Harbor impresses me the most with his scene-stealing turn as Jack Salter. He may have been tough and doesn’t sugarcoat when training the participating sim drivers to push themselves to the limit physically and mentally. And yet, beneath his gruff exterior lies a man with a warm personality after all, as evidently seen with his eventual trainer-and-trainee relationship with Madekwe’s Jann.
Never in a million years would I think Blomkamp could pull off the racing scenes. I always envisioned Kosinski as better in this. The South African-Canadian director immerses me with his energetic visual flair in combining real action and CGI. His fluid camerawork, along with a few nifty drone shots and riveting sound designs from the revving engines to the screeching tires, makes you feel like you are part of the action.
I’m glad the CGI doesn’t overwhelm the racing scene and car-related action moments since Blomkamp smartly use them to his advantage rather than the other way around. Besides, ‘Gran Turismo’ is first and foremost coming from a famous video game and he doesn’t forget about that.
‘Gran Turismo’ marks PlayStation Productions’ second feature-length adaptation, and it was a mile better than the mediocre ‘Uncharted’ released last year. And most of all, Blomkamp is finally back in his top form – easily his best work since ‘District 9’.