Gran Turismo (2023) Review

First, I’m not sure that bringing Neill Blomkamp on board to direct Gran Turismo is a good idea. Besides, this is Gran Turismo we are talking about — one of the most influential car-racing games ever made and the first of its kind that introduced a realistic driving simulator console game. It was a novelty back in the day, featuring 140 licensed cars from manufacturers such as Aston Martin, Honda, Nissan, Mazda and Mitsubishi. Originally released in Japan in 1997 on the first-generation Sony PlayStation, it has since become a huge hit, selling over 10 million copies worldwide. The success drove the game manufacturer to spawn seven main instalments, with 2022’s Gran Turismo 7 being the latest one at the time of writing.

I have been waiting for ages, wondering whether Hollywood would adapt the popular racing simulation video game into a movie. And it sure took Tinseltown long enough with Joseph Kosinski originally attached to direct the big screen version back in 2013. But Kosinski’s version subsequently fell through and it would take years before Blomkamp stepped in instead. The South African-Canadian filmmaker’s last feature was the ill-fated Demonic, which turned out to be his worst movie so far. Before that, his track record was erratic with Elysium being a shallow sociopolitical sci-fi actioner but I did enjoy his otherwise critically-derided Chappie.

So, after finally got my chance to catch the early screening of Gran Turismo with little expectations (I mean, the trailers look like it’s going to be a generic racing movie), I was surprised that Neill Blomkamp manages to nail it after all. Working from a screenplay by Jason Hall and Zach Baylin, the plot incorporates the video game-to-movie adaptation and the true story of Jann Mardenborough. The latter stars Archie Madekwe, who spends his leisure time playing the Gran Turismo console game for hours inside his room. His ex-footballer dad (Djimon Hounsou) always wanted him to be more ambitious and practical like his brother, Cai (Daniel Puig) and he doesn’t enjoy seeing him wasting time playing video games. His mother (Geri Halliwell Horner — yes, that Ginger Spice from Spice Girls), on the other hand, is more supportive of Jann’s lifelong dream as a racer.

Jann finally got his opportunity when he wins a place to compete against the best sim drivers around the world in a Gran Turismo contest. Winners will secure a spot at GT Academy, where they have to undergo real-life training behind the wheel under the guidance of former racer-turned-chief engineer/trainer Jack Salter (David Harbour). Motorsport marketing executive Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom), in the meantime, is responsible for spearheading the Gran Turismo competition. Participating sim drivers who successfully win their trials at GT Academy will be chosen to race professionally in the racing circuit.

After Jann emerged as a winner, his next challenge is to secure at least a fourth place out of the six-race competition to earn his FIA license (a driver’s license for competing professional racers).

Jason Hall and Zach Baylin’s screenplay is pretty much a formulaic underdog story of how a British gamer lad overcomes the odds to become a professional racing driver. Blomkamp leaves no clichés unturned, meaning those who watch enough racing movies can predict the movie from start to end. And yet, he embraces the otherwise formulaic structure wholeheartedly with good performances all around, beginning with Madekwe’s star-making turn as the highly-determined gamer looking to prove to his family that he can make it big in the racing world.

Orlando Bloom delivers solid support as both motorsport marketing exec and GT Academy organiser Danny Moore. Then, there’s David Harbour, who steals the show as the crusty and no-nonsense trainer, Jack Salter. In what could have been thankless roles, Djimon Hounsou and Geri Halliwell Horner manage to make quite an impression as Jann’s parents.

The highlight of the movie, of course, is Blomkamp’s dedication to combining the racing sequence with an effective mix of practical car stunts and video game-inspired CGI moments. His technical know-how direction, coupled with Jacques Jouffret’s crisp cinematography and the movie’s overall impeccable sound design captures the visceral look and feel of a racing competition. The added use of drone shots showcasing the aerial view of spectators from the grandstands and the race cars speeding along the winding circuit is a nice move.

Together with incorporating shots of the POV view of a driver and others like the cameras mounted on the side of the race car, Blomkamp certainly deserves praise for recreating the spirit of the Gran Turismo game. Even if you are not viewing this from the video game perspective, he does a good job of making a highly-kinetic racing movie. I also love how Blomkamp includes several video game graphics to enhance the racing set pieces. And he does so without overwhelming them to the point they look visually distracting or awkwardly misplaced.

Gran Turismo may have suffered a few pacing issues, particularly during some of the off-the-track moments (Jann’s scenes with his love interest, Audrey played by Maeve Courtier-Lilley come to mind). The 134-minute length does make me feel it needs tighter editing but overall, it was surprisingly one of the best video game adaptations and racing movies ever made. And of course, it’s nice to see Blomkamp returns to form after the embarrassing debacle of Demonic, proving he still got what it takes to make a good movie.