To say I was expecting little from this movie would be an understatement. Gran Turismo certainly isn’t the first game I’d have chosen to make from the PlayStation back catalogue (make a Little Big Planet movie you cowards!). Plus it’s a true story (you may have noticed from the over-eager inclusion in the title) which only made me concerned that this would be a two-hour long advert. Stick Legolas in it, and my expectations were set just below the Aaron Paul ‘Need for Speed’ movie.
It’s lovely to be proven wrong. Gran Turismo: Based on a True Story pulls up to the grid in an unassuming little Ford Fiesta, but packs a wallop and finishes well. It has zero expectations but just about creeps onto the podium. We had no idea that we would be so invested in a movie that glorifies Gran Turismo, of all things.
Things start really, really badly. Gran Turismo: Based on a True Story’s opening does indeed feel like an advert for the video game, as the directors are forced to do the groundwork of letting you know what Gran Turismo is, and why you should care. That’s always going to sound like hagiography and an advertisement. Orlando Bloom tells us from a pulpit how GT is the most realistic simulation of race-driving that can be found. Not only that, it’s got a captive audience of fourteen million people, some of whom are into it competitively. What if – he goes on – the very best of those drivers could be trained to become professional drivers?
It would be ridiculous, Last Starfighter-gumph if it wasn’t actually true. Orlando makes the pitch to Nissan, they bite, and suddenly he has a wad of cash to put the plan in motion. First stop is Jack Salter (David Harbour), a washed up racing driver who makes a living as a race engineer for a rival team. Orlando poaches him as a team-lead, David Harbour does his best grizzled ‘I’m not sure about this’ face, and the endeavour is off. It’s time for the try-outs to begin.
We gamers can have a little chuckle at some of the video game stuff in this opening. Our lead, Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe) believes he can make a living as a GT player, but his parents (including the distracting casting of Geri Haliwell) do not believe it’s a viable career. Which is a valuable lesson, as you definitely can’t make a living from it. But Jann teaches the world that yes, in this very specific instance, someone did, so follow your dreams, kids! We felt like stubbing in an asterisk in Tipp-Ex.
Jann heads to some kind of underground video gaming hangar which definitely doesn’t exist in the real world, anywhere, where there is a single machine where the try-outs happen. We’d love to know how distant from the truth this is, because it must be ridiculous, right? Once he posts a top score, he gets the invite in real-time, which made us chuckle into our Prime drink. As if they would be told immediately. The fact gets padded out with a little fiction.
And then we’re off to the racetrack, where top Gran Turismo drivers from around the world are pitted against each other in a mix of Hunger Games and Full Metal Jacket. David Harbour barks at them from helicopters, as they watch their positions change on a livefeed highscore table. It’s presented as a multi-million pound endeavour that would put Squid Game to shame. We can only imagine what the reality was like.
But while we were scoffing, we were having a rather good time. This is the classic sports movie template. Jann starts near the bottom, just about evading the eliminations. But he captures the heart of the usually steely David Harbour, and begins to grow as a driver. He moves up the ranking and, well, you can probably guess what happens next. Sports movies like this are not known for mixing things up.
But there’s a reason we keep getting these ‘rags to riches, back to rags and onto riches again’ templates. They’re glorious wish-fulfilment, and as humans we just love to watch a David win against a league of Goliaths. Sometimes, you just want to watch Cool Runnings, retold in a different vehicle. Which is what Gran Turismo: Based on a True Story very definitely is.
Plus there’s another David to shout about. David Harbour is a flipping revelation in this movie. I mean, I do like his groggy schtick in Stranger Things, but here he shows that he can thoroughly own a movie. He’s magnetic, and we immediately wanted his Jack Salter as a mentor and dad-figure. It’s an archetype that we have encountered before, but he glowers so successfully that we forgave and forgot.
We’re not so sure about everyone else. There’s a nervous charm to Archie Madekwe, but we never fully believed that he could become a Le Mans driver. His co-racers mostly blended into the background. We’ve rarely been convinced by Orlando Bloom, and that opinion was hardened by Gran Turismo: Based on a True Story. We’re not sure if we’re meant to like or dislike his Danny Moore, as he veers from being the romantic visionary to the slimy exec.
But while the humans don’t wholly convince, the cars very much do. It’s been a year of bad and rushed CGI ruining perfectly acceptable movies (let them cook, movie executives), but this is an example of a movie with believable, physical stunts that are augmented with delicate CGI.
Director Neil Blomkamp (District 13) does a superb job of showing the racers being pushed to the edge. When they lose control, the camera doesn’t shirk from showing it all. The cars spin, crunch and flip, with the knowledge that the people within them are just kids. Gran Turismo: Based on a True Story makes the races fast and entertaining, but doesn’t avoid the elephant in the room: whether these racers should be racing and putting others at risk.
It’s that topic that kept us stuck in Gran Turismo’s headlights. This could have been such a lightweight little racing movie, but Neil Blomkamp and his team want to grapple with the realities of putting young, inexperienced drivers (at least in a real car) into some of the toughest and fastest races in the world. It’s borderline irresponsible, and the movie comes to some decent conclusions. It’s a more mature handling of the subject than we expected.
We were more than a little surprised to be gripping our seats as much as we did. From the inauspicious start to the terrible title and the tryhard video game references, Gran Turismo should have headed directly to the pits.
But through sheer force of will, particularly from David Harbour and director Neil Blomkamp, it actually goes places. It’s still got its eye-roll moments, but Gran Turismo: Based on a True Story is popcorn entertainment of a higher order than you might predict. True story.