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The visual exterior of Neill Blomkamp’s racing simulator video game adaptation “Gran Turismo” mimics that of a race car itself: shiny, colorful and chrome. There’s a real surface appeal to this movie, which is based on the remarkable true story of Jann Mardenborough, a gamer and fan of the “Gran Turismo” driving game (billed as the most accurate driving game simulator), who won a Nissan-sponsored driving academy and has since gone on to become a successful race car driver himself — on real tracks, not virtual ones. But pop the hood on this bad boy and there’s an undeniable cynicism undergirding this vehicle. A movie about a publicity stunt is still just a publicity stunt after all.
If you start pulling apart this rousing, if formulaic, sports flick, it’ll all come undone. (One may even question the utility of gas guzzling motor sports, and why we’d celebrate them on screen at all in this day and age.) “Gran Turismo” does attempt to get ahead of the craven capitalism on display with Orlando Bloom’s portrayal of Nissan marketing exec Danny Moore (a version of GT Academy founder Darren Cox). Bloom — and the script by Jason Hall, Zach Baylin and Alex Tse — positions Danny as savvy but smarmy; an outside-the-box innovator with visions of “untapped demographics” dancing in his head.
Danny flashes a sharky grin at Nissan execs while describing the gamers in whom Gran Turismo has “ignited a passion for driving.” He cooks up the scheme for the gamer-to-racer driving academy, and though winning is winning, even in a photo finish, he still wants the most camera-ready driver behind the wheel of the Nissan Motorsports vehicle, even if he isn’t the fastest. He’s a bit of an antagonist to our hero, allowing the audience to scoff at his business-oriented motivation, even if the entire endeavor of this film is to be an advertisement for the “Gran Turismo” game and Nissan cars.
The fastest driver in the academy is a tall, quiet kid from Cardiff, Wales, the son of a former footballer, searching for his purpose in life. Archie Madekwe plays determined driving enthusiast Jann with a shy charm, and if “Gran Turismo” works, it’s due to Madekwe’s performance, as well as the gruff and grounded presence of David Harbour as Jack Salter, a former race car driver and engineer tapped to train the gamers.
As a piece of purely mechanical, revved-up entertainment, “Gran Turismo” really does work. Audience members threw their hands up with full-throated cheers every time Jann inches up higher in the rankings, such is the appeal of Madekwe’s earnest performance, and the way Blomkamp lays out the stakes with simple but effective visual storytelling. He utilizes the saturated color palette to allow us to easily locate Jann and his foes in the race, while putting game iconography and graphics to work to illustrate how Jann sees the track thanks to his hours on the driving simulator.
The script is standard sports movie fare without much subtext — in the mouth of anyone other than Harbour, some of these motivational lines would be real clangers, but he sells the material with his rugged soulfulness, and there’s true chemistry between he and Madekwe, as the unlikely sports star and his demanding coach. Djimon Hounsou plays Jann’s father, and it’s a great, emotional role for the actor, as the dad who doesn’t understand his son’s dream. And yes, that is Geri Halliwell Horner, aka Ginger Spice, playing Jann’s mother. Fun fact: the real Mardenborough also serves as his character’s driving double in the film.
“Gran Turismo” bears comparison to that other recent racing film, “Ford v Ferrari,” and not just because both films feature their climaxes at the iconic 24 Hours of Le Mans race. Both films are also stories of personal determination, individual achievement and overcoming obstacles, but are inextricably linked to automotive manufacturers and the desire to sell more cars. These inspiring tales have cynically capitalist ends and origins, but then again, that’s the business of motor sports, already saturated with sponsorships, product placement and advertising. The writers don’t attempt to interrogate the business, and why would they? In the end, “Gran Turismo,” as entertaining as it is, is like a custom wrap on a sports car: merely an advertisement stuck onto Mardenborough’s unique journey to the race track.
2 stars (out of 4)
MPA rating: PG-13 (for intense action and some strong language)
Running time: 2:15
How to watch: In theaters Friday
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