“Gran Turismo” is a race-car movie that gives the audience a contact high. That’s what you tend to want from an action drama about souped-up sports cars snaking their way around labyrinthine tracks at 300 kilometers per hour. But there’s an innocence to this one, and a surprise authenticity. It’s like a “Fast and Furious” movie made without cynicism, and it gets to you.
The film is based on a true story, which it sticks impressively close to. The central character, Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe), is a mixed-race kid from Cardiff who sits in his room playing Gran Turismo: a state-of-the-art training simulator that’s been marketed as a video game. At home, Jann can take any curve at maximum speed, passing competitors as if he were slicing through space. He’s a vicarious virtuoso. But he dreams of racing real cars, and one day, out of nowhere, the opportunity presents itself.
Danny Moore, played by an older and wilier Orlando Bloom, is a motorsport marketing executive at Nissan who comes up with a concept that has the potential to sell a great many cars. What if they held a contest for all the players of Grand Turismo, and the winners were awarded with a spot in the GT Academy: a basic-training competition, sponsored by Nissan, that will allow them to transfer their video-game skills to an actual track? The 10 winners will race real cars, competing against each other until only one is left. That champion will then sign a contract to race cars for Nissan, and the millions of global players of Gran Turismo will be inspired to go out and buy automobiles. (Danny is trying to restore the romantic luster of driving to bolster a fading car market.)
On paper, the concept — gamers learn to race real cars! — can make the film sound like a Formula One version of “The Goonies.” But “Gran Turismo” is a drama that moves like a race car; it stays fast, direct, and low to the ground. Archie Madekwe, who plays Jann, is tall, with dark eyebrows, a killer grin, and a softness that can turn hard with anger; he may be a movie star in the making. Jann is a happy kid, but his father, Steve (Djimon Hounsou), who was once a professional football player, fashions himself a wised-up expert on all the dreams you shouldn’t allow yourself to believe in. The tension between these two is ripe with discord, and Jann, the go-for-your-dream hero, is very much a figure of our time. In trying to take his virtual skill set and make it real, he’s a walking metaphor for anyone wired into the digital world who craves the thrill of experience.
The director, Neill Blomkamp, is a filmmaker I’ve never much cared for. I thought “District 9” was frenzied and overblown, and he lost me with the lushly derivative “Elysium” and the mechanistic “Chappie.” But “Gran Turismo,” Blomkamp’s first major feature in eight years, is easily his best. It’s made with a spontaneous humanistic grace, and the racing sequences, which dominate the movie because they’re truly the story it’s telling, are dazzlingly directed and edited. “Gran Turismo” puts the audience in the driver’s seat more than just about any race-car movie I can think of, and it puts us everywhere else as well. We experience the races from on high, from right next to the cars, from just above the track, the camera swooping forward. We see freeze-frames of Jann’s position (an arrow will point to him and say “fourth place”), and diagrams of his split-second passing technique. It’s all edited together like a “Mad Max” film, with a kaleidoscopic precision nearly metaphysical in its irony: The movie employs a heightened video-game aesthetic to make the races more real.
The sleaze-lite Danny has tapped Jack Salter (David Harbour), a retired racing veteran, to be the GT Academy’s trainer and drill sergeant, and Harbour knows how to spin each line so that it’s spikier than the last. Jann wins the GT Academy competition, of course, but that’s just the first of many tests. And the film doesn’t make any of it look too easy. The established racers don’t want to compete with gamers, and their ruthlessness is palpable. The races are fights, vivid in their danger. Jann learns in training that he has to commit to passing someone, but in the middle of a race “to pass or not to pass” becomes a scary question. Is it worth risking your life to move one car ahead?
At one point there’s a cataclysmic accident, and we see how instantly even a good racer can fall into the abyss. This results in maybe a bit too much handwringing, but it sets up a satisfying grand finale, set at the 24 Hours of Le Mans race in France. “Gran Turismo” is about racing, about healing, about fathers and sons, about facing down your competitors until that moment when you dare to thread the needle of fate.
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