Neill Blomkamp’s Gran Turismo is a Video Game Inspired Biopic That Needs a Few More Pit Stops

Can video games inspire you to chase your dreams? Sony sure thinks the answer is yes. After making a slew of grungy science fiction films, notably District 9, Elysium, and Chappie, director Neill Blomkamp has taken a massive stylistic U-turn. Hanging up explorations of xenophobia and sci-fi cinéma verité, he has instead pursued a biographical sports drama, one that turned a video-game addict into a professional race car driver. What results is a film that feels both over-long and as hollow as a display car – a piece of Nissan marketing lacking both speed and thrust.

Gran Turismo, the latest in the proliferation of video game adaptations for the small screen, charters the biographical journey of Jann Mardenborough, a professional Gran Turismo player who scored himself a chance to become an actual professional race car driver. Sony has been determined to bring its successful PlayStation IP to the cinematic stage, having had middling success with last year’s turgid Uncharted, but mainstream applause for HBO’s daring adaptation of The Last of Us. Gran Turismo lands somewhere above Uncharted, but still falls very shy of what HBO have achieved, delivering very little above shallow product placement and a by-the-numbers sports drama. 

The film begins with Jann (Archie Madekwe) attentively playing the titular game in his bedroom, headphones wired in, and a race wheel firmly planted to the ground. He has a job in construction alongside his father (Djimon Hounsou), having dropped out of university and instead pursuing his passion for simulated racing. His father Steve wants to get his son out of the house and play football – but Jann has his sights set on only one goal. Steve believes Jann has no future in the pursuit of racing, he doesn’t want his son getting stuck working the same construction job that he has been doing forever. His mother Lesley (Geri Halliwell Horner) feels different, wanting Jann to pursue whatever it is that makes him happy.

Meanwhile, Nissan marketing executive Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom) is theorising how to strengthen his company’s brand. When he pitches a ‘GT Academy’ to a hesitant board member (Sadao Ueda), this begins a chain reaction that allows the elite of simulation racing to compete for a chance to become a proper professional racer – with an added sponsorship from Nissan. Danny travels to London to enlist the help of disgruntled engineer and mechanic Jack Salter (David Harbour), a former racer with a murky past. After some initial scepticism to join the training team, Jack decides to assist Danny in his pitch, a result of getting fed up with racing hot-shot Nicolas “Nic” Capa (Josha Stradowski). Nic, who becomes one of Jann’s prominent rivals as the film goes on, believes Jack to be a ‘has-been’ and a washed-up engineer. 

When Jann learns of the competition through his friend Persol (Nikhil Parmar), he makes the mistake of going out drinking with his brother Coby (Daniel Puig) on the night before the qualifying race. Jann decides to drive home but has induced enough alcohol that he is over the legal limit. When he encounters a police checkpoint, what ensues is a chase that allows Jann to visualise the user interface that he is so well practised at inside the simulation – using his skills from the game to avoid the cops by racing confidently in real life. Once he evades capture, despite parental disapproval, it is not long before Jann has secured himself a spot inside the academy.  

Archie Madekwe brings very little to the role as Jann, his expressions range from limited excitement to misplaced bewilderment. Considering this is a semi-biopic, was there nothing more to draw from about this man other than the fact he listens to Kenny G and Enya, has an awkward crush on student Audrey (Maeve Courtier-Lilley), and values a deep commitment to video games? It is a severely lacking characterisation that hinders a lot of the drama it wants its audience to cheer for. Why should we care about a one-dimensional man who mumbles and galivants his way aimlessly to success? At the very least, it opens a conversation about the sense of professionalism needed to compete in such a dangerous sport. At the very worst, it suggests that all men need to succeed is to channel their anger, not take responsibility, and be thankful to major corporations for elevating drivers to professional status. It is a blending of tones that leaves nothing but soot and carbon bursting from the exhaust. 

Thankfully, Orlando Bloom attempts some entrepreneurial flair as Danny Moore, channelling GT Academy founder Darren Cox with ease – the man whom the character is based. While his overbearing accent sometimes rings a tad untrue, Bloom brings a certain vigour to the role that sells his business-oriented aspirations. It is David Harbour that proves his acting chops by elevating the material he is given, once again playing a supportive rock that uses his character talents to his best advantage – being that of a parental yet tired mentor. The greatest heart to the film however comes from criminally underused Djimon Hounsou, portraying a father that possibly goes on the only character transformation the trite script offers. Hounsou has publicly stated his dissatisfaction for how Hollywood has treated him as an actor, and here he still gives a cathartic performance despite being relegated a support role once again.

Its narrative at the very least inspires little in the way of association to the video game. ‘Gran Turismo’ is considered a racing simulator, allowing players to emulate the experience of real-life professional race drivers. The film tries in multiple sequences to visualise the user-interface of the game into the real-life races that Jann signs himself up for. In certain moments it is an uninspired choice to bring the simulation into the filmic landscape, but it is not a major detractor overall. Blomkamp is an able director, and here the racing sequences are simultaneously slick and sterile. 

Fans of the Gran Turismo series will derive some pleasure from a crowd-pleasing racing drama. Others will find themselves slightly disappointed in a film that offers little beyond the facade of clichéd melodrama. For a film that includes countless races around the track, its 134-minute runtime assuredly begs its audience to go for a spin around the same lap multiple times. Whether it reaches the finish line is very much up for debate, Ford v Ferrari it is not. Its pace does its hackneyed plotline few favours, retreading every known sentimental and structured plot beat of the racer narrative an average audience will come to expect.

Sometimes being safe is okay, but in a film that is primarily an advertisement for both a Sony video game and a Nissan car brand, Gran Turismo needed a bit more oil pumping through its engine.

Director: Neill Blomkamp

Cast: David Harbour, Orlando Bloom, Archie Madekwe

Writer: Jason Hall, Zach Baylin, (based on a story by Alex Tse, Jason Hall)

Kahn Duncan

Kahn is a passionate Melbourne based film lover who looks to film as a tool for both entertainment, education, but also feeling. Attempts to watch at least one feature film a day, but unfortunately life gets in the way sometimes. Prospective Graduate of Media Communications (Screen Studies) and Business (Marketing) at Monash University.

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