“Gran Turismo” – Nerds…in…raaAaAAaaaAaaace.
Every video gamer dreams of playing video games as a career profession. I once seriously considered applying for a job as a video game tester that listed among its requirements a “deep knowledge of baseball.” My childhood dream was to become a professional baseball player and a job playing a baseball video game sure seemed like a great consolation prize. Except, the job was located in San Francisco and paid like it was in Jackson, Mississippi. Dreams dashed again. But not every dream is crushed by the harsh reality of economics and, well, reality.
Gran Turismo tells the story of Jann Mardenborough (portrayed by Archie Madekwe), a video gamer who actually realized his dream of becoming a racecar driver. To be clear, the video game itself does not tell that story, just the film. As the film makes very clear, Gran Turismo (the game), is a racing simulator. The prologue of the film shows the game’s creator, Kazunori Yamauchi (portrayed in the film by Takehiro Hira), creating the game with the intention of making it the most realistic racing game possible. It will not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with sports movies that this little nugget of information will be leaned on by Jann on more than one occasion.
Following the film’s prologue, we meet Jann and he is every bit the stereotypical nerdy gamer. He’s an adult man living with his parents. He works as a salesclerk at a clothing store. He splits his free time between playing Gran Turismo in his room and playing Gran Turismo in an arcade. He spends all his money on the ultimate gaming setup. He’s socially awkward and hasn’t the slightest idea how to talk to his crush. Or to most humans, for that matter. The only thing missing is a subscription to a Funyun delivery service.
And, like all gamers, Jann’s parents (Djimon Hounsou and Geri Halliwell Horner) are very frustrated and disapproving of his lifestyle. At one point, his dad tricks him into working with him at the railyards to teach him a lesson about where his life is heading. And, of course, this just makes Jann more determined to chase his racing dream.
Luckily for Jann, Nissan marketing executive Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom) convinces Nissan to create and fund the GT Academy with the purpose of training sim drivers (a.k.a. gamers) as real-life racing drivers (no, seriously – the GT Academy was a real thing that operated from 2008 to 2016). Jann is invited to participate in a qualification race within the game where the winner earns a place in the academy.
Once at the academy, Jann meets chief engineer and former racer Jack Salter (David Harbour). Jack’s job is to train all the contest winners to be real racers and, in easily the best movie speech in years, tells them all he thinks the entire idea is stupid and dangerous. Harbour’s Jack is nearly identical to his Stranger Things Hopper character, and it works like a charm. He’s cynical and snarky, yet sympathetic and caring. He tells people what he really thinks and it takes all of Danny’s patience not to fire Jack on the spot.
Jann is one of twelve contest winners at the academy and they learn that they are competing with each other for a chance to race for Nissan in professional races. This being a sports movie, you know exactly how this act will play out. For that matter, you know how the rest of the movie will play out. One recurring element of the movie is that Jann can see “alternate lines” … driving routes that take risks and deviate from the standard lines he is supposed to follow. But the movie itself cannot see any alternate lines, and can only follow the established sports/racing movie formula. Specifically, Days of Thunder. Jann is the underdog who has to convince several people he is for real, has a grizzled old mentor, vanquish various racing foes throughout the film, overcome an incident on the track, and even gets a girl in the end. And just like Days of Thunder, the spectacular racing scenes are the best part of the film. That’s not to say that Madekwe, Harbour, and Hounsou don’t deliver some very good performances, but we watch racing movies for the racing.
Directed by Neill Blomkamp, Blomkamp injects a bit of the video game into the film in very creative ways. If you’ve ever played a PlayStation game, you will recognize several of the sound effects incorporated into the race scenes, as well as the visualized racing lines the racers are trying to follow. It also features several scenes where a hologram schematic of a car materializes around Jann, then dematerializes after a few seconds. Once he is driving real cars, the same type of effect happens, except we are taken into the inner workings of the car (usually the engine) and the effects look like real parts instead of holograms. It’s a neat way to engage the audience to make the point – Jann is in the zone, baby!
I admit that I expected this movie to be like most video-game based movies – mediocre at best and laughably bad at worst. Instead, I found myself thoroughly enjoying a film that wasn’t a video-game movie at all, but a biopic about a cool story that just happens to involve a video game. It’s a very well-constructed, albeit safe, film that immerses you in the story and the tension as if it is a new experience, even though you already saw this movie when it featured Tom Cruise.
Rating: Don’t ask for any money back and keep playing those games. You never know when the next executive will start a new academy.