By George Bate & Josh Reilly B.
In late July, Sony Pictures delayed the release of one of their upcoming titles, Gran Turismo, citing their belief that positive word of mouth coming from advanced pre-screenings would help promote the film in the wake of the well-justified strikes that are currently underway in the industry. It was a bold move that showed a degree of confidence in a film that many had questioned, particularly to do with the story beats shown in the trailer.
That some audiences were unsure of some of what was shown in the trailer is a testament to the wild true story that this film is based on. Gran Turismo follows Jann Mardenborough (played by Archie Madekwe), a teenager from Cardiff who spends most of his days playing the beloved racing video game simulator before being recruited into a program to become a real race car driver. His dream was always to make that progression to becoming a professional racer, but his family, particularly his father, were unsupportive. From there, Jann pushes to prove his doubters wrong as he enters the high octane and often dangerous world of racing. Alongside him are Danny Moore and Jack Salter, played by Orlando Bloom and David Harbour respectively. The latter proves to be a mentor figure, guiding Jann through the intensity of the field he’s heading into.
Gran Turismo is directed by Neill Blomkamp, who previously helmed sci-fi dramas such as District 9, Chappie, and Elysium. It might seem quite a leap to go from those high concept films to a more grounded, true story like Gran Turismo, but Blomkamp has always approached his work with a sense of realism that is seen once again here. What Blomkamp achieves in Gran Turismo is a genuinely surprising, moving story that is akin to the sports stories that audiences have come to know and love, while still remarkably achieving a sense of originality and purpose throughout.
Blomkamp’s work on the many racing sequences are phenomenal. There’s enough of these races that it could potentially become repetitive or boring after a certain point, but those feelings never come. Each race has its own unique setting and feeling, depending on where Jann is in his journey, which adds a personal touch and character driven approach that sets Gran Turismo apart. Archie Madekwe plays Jann in the film and grows into the role, particularly in these race sequences. Jann doesn’t appear particularly convincing at all in his surroundings at the beginning, but come the end of the film, Madekwe shows a level of maturity and confidence that not only highlights the growth of this character, but the strength of the performer as well.
Jann isn’t the only interesting character in this film with Orlando Bloom and David Harbour playing supporting roles. Initially, Bloom is the one who pushes for a video game player to become a professional driver, whereas Harbour casts doubt on whether these gamers have the ability behind the wheel to pull it off, as well as noting some genuine safety concerns. Interestingly, however, Bloom eventually becomes the doubter in the story, and Harbour is the believer. With the roles reversed, Harbour is allowed to showcase his excellent ability to play a warm, paternal-like figure, just as he does in the Stranger Things series. Gran Turismo spends enough time on its characters to show the profession of Harbour’s hero from a closed-off man with a hard-shell exterior to a trusting and caring teacher. In a film full of exciting action and racing drama, it’s the characters that ultimately stand out.
It makes sense, then, that Sony would choose to push the release date back in order to give the film more of a pre-release buzz and, perhaps even more importantly, allow Gran Turismo some breathing room from the viral sensations that are Barbie and Oppenheimer. As far as sports movies go, Blomkamp hardly reinvents the wheel here (pun intended), but he does more than enough to fuse the general competitive story with a uniqueness and charm that audiences are sure to enjoy.
Gran Turismo is the latest video game adaption to hit theaters, but it stands out from the rest. A character driven drama that features high emotional stakes just as much as it does action and race cars, Neill Blomkamp helms his best film since District 9 and focuses on an unbelievable true story that deserves to be told. Seemingly out of nowhere, Gran Turismo has arrived and become the surprise film of the year, and is sure to be one of the best of 2023.