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Gran Turismo review: a racing biopic that runs out of gas

Archie Madekwe sits in a race car in Gran Turismo.
Gran Turismo
“Gran Turismo is part advertisement, part racing biopic. Mostly, though, it's duller than it has any right to be.”
Pros
  • One memorable, midpoint racing sequence
  • Charismatic, if one-note, supporting performances
Cons
  • A formulaic, by-the-numbers script
  • Neill Blomkamp's artless direction
  • A cast of one-note, uninteresting characters

When watching Gran Turismo, Sony and Neill Blomkamp’s new, true-story take on the popular PlayStation franchise, it’s hard not to think of the excellent 2019 Christian Bale movie Ford v Ferrari. Both films not only center on real-life racers, but also feature extended climaxes set at a 24-hour race at Le Mans and revolve largely around the friendship between a professional driver and his chief engineer. There are even images throughout Gran Turismo that look strikingly similar to scenes from the earlier James Mangold-directed, Oscar-nominated film and that are structured similarly.

Despite everything that the two films have in common, though, Gran Turismo lacks the heart that made it easy for viewers to invest in Ford v Ferrari’s story. As a matter of fact, it lacks any real artistic identity. That will likely come as a surprise to those familiar with Blomkamp’s past films, which have occasionally suffered from the bluntness of his voice and his overbearing visual style. Both of those traits are absent from Gran Turismo, a film about competitive racing that spins its wheels — going nowhere emotionally or thematically for the majority of its runtime.

Orlando Bloom leans on a car in Gran Turismo.
Sony Pictures Releasing

It should go without saying at this point that Gran Turismo is based on a true story. The film’s marketing materials have repeatedly reinforced that fact in an attempt to sell Gran Turismo not as just another video game adaptation, but as a dramatization of a unique, real-life rise to glory. In this case, said rise belongs to Jann Mardenborough (played in the film by Archie Madekwe), a British-born gamer who received the chance of a lifetime in 2011 when his skills as a Gran Turismo player resulted in Nissan and Sony giving him the opportunity to become a professional racing driver.

Jason Hall and Zach Baylin’s script frames Mardenborough’s journey as a dream-come-true story that confirms the value of believing in one’s self, no matter what anyone else might say. Over the course of the film, Madekwe’s Mardenborough is forced to tune out the criticisms and warnings of not only his skeptical father, Steve (an underserved Djimon Hounsou), but also Jack Salter (David Harbour), the racer-turned-chief engineer hired by Nissan marketing executive Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom) to try and turn Jann and several of his fellow, talented gamers into race car drivers.

The problem is that Jann never meets all that much resistance to his dreams throughout Gran Turismo. Despite how repetitive it makes the early arguments between him and his father, the film remains content to simply follow its hero as he surely and quickly rises through the world of professional racing. The one true hurdle it throws at Jann involves the dramatization of a real-life automobile crash that reworks the timeline and details of the event in ways that will likely inspire some intense scrutiny from anyone who looks into it.

Archie Madekwe looks at David Harbour in Gran Turismo.
Sony Pictures Releasing

Ultimately, for a film that repeatedly stresses how challenging and demanding driving an actual race car can be, Gran Turismo fails to make the effort involved in its central sport truly felt. The film, consequently, doesn’t tell a dramatically engaging story so much as it recaptures the sense of linear progression offered by video games. The longer it remains content with simply following the basic motions of its plot, the more one gets the sense of just how lifeless Gran Turismo really is.

As seat-shakingly loud as it can get, Blomkamp’s film never invests enough time in the emotion and drama of its hero’s story to make any of his successes or rare setbacks feel earned or impactful. The by-the-numbers nature of Gran Turismo’s plotting leaves many of its characters and performances feeling disappointingly one-note. Try as he might, Madekwe struggles to bring real, emotional depth to his fictionalized version of Mardenborough, who frequently feels more like a blank video game protagonist than he does an earnest, multidimensional dreamer.

Madekwe only truly shines during one third-act scene between him and Hounsou that’s undeniably well-performed, but also undercut by how underdeveloped their characters are throughout Gran Turismo. Opposite Madekwe, both Harbour and Bloom give charismatic performances as characters who similarly feel more like bland archetypes than they do flesh-and-blood human beings. By focusing so intently on getting through as many of its plot points as it can, Gran Turismo sands off the edges of its characters and their stories — rendering them as the dullest possible versions of themselves.

David Harbour wears a headset in Gran Turismo.
Sony Pictures Releasing

Behind the camera, Blomkamp never brings a distinct artistic perspective to Gran Turismo. Even worse, the film is so in love with its rich corporations and products that it’s hard to believe Blomkamp, whose previous movies include numerous scathing critiques of corporate culture and greed, actually chose to direct it. In today’s media landscape, it’s hard to accuse any one filmmaker of selling out, so it doesn’t seem fair to pin that particular criticism on Blomkamp of all directors. However, acknowledging the reality of the current Hollywood system doesn’t take away from the fact that, like Barbie, Air, and Flamin’ Hot before it, Gran Turismo feels more like an advertisement than it does a piece of blockbuster entertainment.

The film is a weightless racing biopic that desperately wants you to buy into not only the journey of its hero, but also the roles that companies like Nissan and Sony played in making his dreams come true. Gran Turismo never accomplishes either of those things. On the surface, it may try to pass itself off as an inspiring sports drama, but when you look under its hood, there’s nothing there but faulty wiring and a blown-out engine. Ford v Ferrari it is most definitely not.

Gran Turismo is playing in select theaters now. It opens nationwide on Friday, August 25.

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Alex Welch
Alex is a TV and movies writer based out of Los Angeles. In addition to Digital Trends, his work has been published by…
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