Gran Turismo review: The new Days of Thunder
Superman made audiences believe he could fly; Gran Turismo will make you believe you can drive.
I have two early formative memories of being behind the video game wheel: losing my sanity to Driver’s slaloming, skidding tutorial, aka Dante’s hitherto undreamt-of 10th circle of hell; and dropping the hammer in a blue, gold-rimmed Subaru Impreza in Gran Turismo 2, at a time when the blocky pixels of my PS1 felt vivid and silky smooth – and, crucially, it felt like driving, even to a four-year-old.
If Polyphony Digital and PlayStation want you to walk away with one emotion, it’s hunger for the open road… if that road can be selected from the latest Gran Turismo title’s roster of tracks. Over and over again, we’re fed the same message: it’s the most accurate racing simulator, and as much as it’s a game, it’s also something more for the players capable of honing its full piston-crackling power.
Sure, it may be the most expensive, ludicrous advert ever conceived – but Neill Blomkamp has achieved a bit of a miracle: a video game movie in the spirit of all the abysmal adaptations of yesteryear, but one that effectively communicates the immersion and fun of its source, and overcomes woeful writing with a rollicking, rousing big-screen experience.
Gran Turismo: Based on a true story
In case you didn’t know – but you do, because the film has been slapped with the true story subtitle mere weeks before release – this is based on the real achievement of Jann Mardenborough. In the movie, he’s portrayed by Archie Madekwe, and we find him where you’d expect: in his bedroom, lip-lickingly happy about a new steering wheel peripheral.
His dad (Djimon Hounsou) doesn’t understand that “damn PlayStation thing” and wishes he’d focus on a goal “within the realm of reality”, or football, while his mother (Geri Halliwell) offers quiet support of his dream to become a racing driver. When he’s not working at the “knicker store”, he’s either besting his track times on GT or pancaking any and all competition at the local gamer cafe.
Thousands of miles away, the first seed of an opportunity is planted. Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom) successfully pitches the studio on a wild idea: find the best sim racers in the world, have them go head-to-head at a training camp, and put them in a real car in actual tire-to-tarmac competitions. Jann is scouted quickly, but whether it’s the G-force of a 200mph rocket, the pressure to push through the nerves, or the many crashes, it’ll be the toughest mental and physical test of his life.
Class C script and performances
The movie asks a lot of Madekwe; he needs to be convincing as he’s surrounded by CGI cogs and car parts in the thick of physical training, angry and overjoyed, and a lot of acting is conveyed only through his eyes. But unlike, say, Tom Cruise in Top Gun and Tom Hardy in Dunkirk, he doesn’t yet have the charisma to carry that weight, making emotional moments feel awkward, forced, and a little cringe-worthy. That said, Halliwell is unconvincing in basically every scene she’s in – which isn’t many – and Hounsou is bafflingly wasted; I’m not sure why an Oscar nominee is being handed these relatively thankless parts, and he deserves better.
Nobody’s walking out of the cinema thinking about the touching development of Jann’s relationship with his father, and that’s part of the problem: this movie is 134 minutes long, and 15 minutes of yawning, clichéd beats could be slashed. There’s a romantic subplot with Audrey (Maeve Courtier-Lilley), his hometown crush, that is the easiest pee break of 2023. Then again, even when we’re in the depth of the movie’s pleasures, there’s an overabundance of cheese that leaves a stinky taste.
David Harbour emerges almost unscathed, playing gruff pit sergeant Jack Salter, a sim-racing skeptic who takes great glee in ridiculing the gamers. We’d like to see him digging into some stronger overall material, but he elevates each line; when he screams “Punch it!”, it lights a fire in your belly.
Class S racecar action
Don’t expect any specific directorial flair from Blomkamp. Everything outside the track looks like a glossy, pedestrian TV show (with the exception of a Kingsman-esque getaway from the police) but as soon as we get in the cars, the whole thing enters another league; slick, loose cinematography with a mixture of drone photography – we seriously need to start recognizing Michael Bay’s Ambulance as one of the most influential action pictures of the decade – alongside dynamic in-camera stunts and just-like-the-game magic.
Some shots are mounted behind the cars, just like you’re steering them with your analogue stick, and the movie isn’t shy about feeling like GT; nifty visuals keep track of Jann’s progress in any race, and for a real nostalgic ping, the menu sounds of the game are sprinkled throughout. It’s a harsh thought to have, but if this can be this good, what glorious sights and sounds await in Joseph Kosinski’s F1 movie?
One use of music borders on preposterous, and I won’t spoil it here, but like the soppy fool I am, I had to stifle tears; Gran Turismo is easy to write off from the outset, but the round of applause at my screening – and actual clapping in other scenes – attests a crowdpleaser.
Gran Turismo review score: 3/5
Gran Turismo is the new Days of Thunder: pulse-racing action, vapid writing, and still a winner. Ka-chow.
Gran Turismo is in cinemas from August 9 in the UK. You can check out our other coverage here.