Gran Turismo doesn’t quite crash and burn — but it’s still barely a racing movie

Between every type of Formula One, motorcycle or even anthropomorphic talking car, there are really only two types of modern racing films — drastically different under the hood, even while sounding pretty much the same on the surface: racing movies, and movies about racing.  

And while it might seem counterintuitive, the latter camp is usually worse off, simply for focusing on the thing we’re all here for. Because outside of the somewhat routinely successful documentaries (like McLaren, Senna and Weekend of a Champion) or older features (like Le Mans, which shows nearly 40 minutes of Steve McQueen driving before the first conversation even occurs) the modern movie objectively about racing is relatively rare — and usually not great. 

Though franchises from Need for Speed to Fast and Furious, and even Death Race‘s best-forgotten sequels truly do operate as clunky excuses to show how cool a car can be —  they do so at the obvious expense of plot.  And while focusing solely on what a good driver can do in a car may work in a documentary, filmmakers are usually aware that “driving fast” doesn’t do much to build a meaningful narrative. 

So looking at everything from Ford v. Ferrari, to Rush, to The World’s Fastest Indian and even the bizarrely obscure Motorama or unnervingly proficient Talladega Nights, the actual racing in the other type is always an arbiter for something else — be it success, ego or the  question of whether it really is true that if you’re not first, you’re last.

That leaves Sony’s Gran Turismo — the latest video game movie to tumble out of a particularly motivated ad executive’s imagination — in a difficult spot.

WATCH | Gran Turismo trailer:

Instead of being a great example of either type, a confused framing leaves it spinning its wheels. Obsessively advertised as being based on a true story, the biopic inspired by real-life racer Jann Mardenborough feels more than anything like a movie in search of an idea, instead of the other way around.

Beholden at every turn to uplifting and celebrating the video game brand bankrolling it, and operating more like a collage of aimless scenes awkwardly tying together the admittedly impressive driving itself, Gran Turismo is not wholly a racing movie, or a movie about racing. 

Instead, it’s a slightly overlong commercial that — while it far exceeds the disaster it could have been — stitches together tropes from other movies to get three-quarters of the way to their excitement and satisfaction.

That said, Gran Turismo is exciting; it tells a good enough sports story, with alright performances that are hurt by messy, uninspired and disjointed themes. And like Mattel’s Barbie before it, the admirable attempts of its director can’t separate the end result from its origin: a corporate cash grab obviously created before any narrative raison d’être. Without that direction, it tries out, ditches and replaces motives and arcs before landing on the final shaky and underdeveloped one: esports vs. sports. 

So even while Gran Turismo  delivers RPMs, suspenseful photo finishes and more fiery crashes than a decade’s worth of NASCAR races, there’s a bit missing. It’s a film about a studio that wants audiences to think it has a racing movie, or at least a movie about racing — when what it really has is a bit of intellectual property haphazardly shaped into the best approximation of a story anyone could really hope for.

Based on a true story

That said, the events it draws from are ostensibly movie magic: British teen Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekew) is at odds with his ex-soccer star dad Steve Mardenborough (Djimon Hounsou) over Jann’s obsession with racing and the Gran Turismo video game — sorry, “racing simulator.”  

Motivated first by that conflict — of his desire to be a traditional racer and his father’s disapproval, not directly with video games themselves — Jann soon gets a boon.

Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom), the film’s apparent Lee Iacocca clone (the famous auto-exec played by Jon Bernthal in Ford v. Ferrari), simultaneously develops the genius idea of the GT Academy, a training program offering gamers from around the world a chance to become real drivers because … well, don’t think too hard about it.

Elsewhere, ex racing phenom Jack Salter (David Harbour) is so fed up with working as mechanic and whipping boy to an entitled young driver that he quits and seeks redemption as GT Academy’s driving instructor.

A man wearing race gear steps out onto a racetrack. Behind him are race cars and race crews.
David Harbour appears as Jack Salter in Gran Turismo. (Gordon Timpen/Columbia Pictures/Sony Entertainment/The Associated Press)

It’s a slew of differing motivations that don’t work well together to do much beyond push the various events of Mardenborough’s real life along, while dropping in recurrent and unironic lines emphasizing how realistic the Gran Turismo games are, how much the game means to young people, and even forcing in an outdated Sony MP3 player as a core plot element. 

The movie weaves between these varying plots until they’re all dropped at the academy itself, where a Rush-inspired rivalry between Never Have I Ever‘s Darren Barnet and Jann is briefly started then unceremoniously forgotten.

Following a pivotal race result midway through the movie, essentially everything previously pushing the plot along has either been resolved or ignored. All of Jann’s desires and conflicts have dried up, leaving the plot feeling like a meandering intermission until it’s interrupted by an abrupt, new and unrelated goal to get everything going again. 

Sim-racers vs. athletes

That lack of direction — of a central idea the on-screen racing should operate to expand — brings Gran Turismo almost entirely out of the realm of true racing movie. The only late-stage saving grace is the later-introduced idea of “sim-racers” intruding into the world of traditional athletes — though here too there’s a stumble.

It’s an interesting idea that, if it had been introduced from the beginning and actually meaningfully engaged with, could have elevated Gran Turismo.

But instead of developing the argument through the characters’ journeys, writers Jason Hall and Zach Baylin opt to have Salter repeat ten or twelve versions of the line “this isn’t a game, this is real life,” alongside a sexagenarian mechanic making a few jokes about joysticks and “noobs.”

A man in a jacket and jeans stands amid other men wearing race gear on an outdoor race track.
Director Neill Blomkamp, centre, and Jann Mardenborough, right, on the set of Gran Turismo. (Gordon Timpen/Columbia Pictures/Sony Entertainment/The Associated Press)

Those failings are a shame, because director Neil Blomkamp clearly understood the artifice of a racing movie; the driving itself (helped by the real Jann Mardenborough operating as a stunt driver) is thrilling, and Harbour and Madekew’s acting and chemistry works in spite of the saccharine Coach Carter dynamic.

It also works in spite of the fake, Gran Turismo game-inspired graphics that detract from any seriousness, and occasionally look like they’d be more at home in Grand Theft Auto. (Do any other Gran Turismo fans remember an indicator for “glazed breaks,” or a medal for escaping the cops?) 

Despite its hokey corporate origins, a racing movie always has the potential for greatness, and the truly great racing movie has yet to be made. Still, Gran Turismo does far better than you’d think from the doubly-cursed genres of video games and racing — though is it really an accomplishment if your car overheats, instead of bursting into flames?

Either way, you’re not going anywhere fast.

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