In 2006, a Nissan marketing executive had a truly insane idea to create a competition and an “academy” to turn gamers into race car drivers. Darren Cox saw an untapped market of potential car-buyers in Gran Turismo enthusiasts – the popular PlayStation racing simulator that first came on the market in 1997. And in the third year of the “GT Academy,” an actual star emerged in a 19-year-old British kid named Jann Mardenborough, who would go on to become a professional driver, just like he dreamed. It’s a fine and lucrative idea for a movie — an inspirational underdog story in which brands like Nissan and PlayStation, a Sony company which also owns the studio behind the movie, can take partial credit for and help underwrite. And it couldn’t come at a better time, when F1 is exploding in popularity in the United States thanks in part to the Netflix series “Drive to Survive.” But “Gran Turismo” has taken this opportunity and made the cliché version in this year of movies like “Barbie” and “Air,” which showed audiences that “brand” movies don’t have to be basic.
They can be fresh, vibrant, funny and entertaining – even when literally focused on the corporate schlubs just trying to earn their keep. If you don’t know ins and outs of Mardenborough’s story, it’s best not to study up before “Gran Turismo.” The movie, which has gone through several writers and directors over the years it’s been in development, takes immense liberties with its true story and cherry picks things from various points in Mardenborough’s career to make his debut year as dramatic as possible. The version coming to theaters is credited to screenwriters Jason Hall and Zach Baylin and director Neill Blomkamp (“District 9,” “Chappie”), who likes to amp up the excitement of a car going 200 miles an hour with lots of cuts and close-ups and aerial shots that would surely drive the downand-out veteran enlisted to train these amateurs absolutely insane.
That veteran, named Jack Salter, is played by David Harbour, who is quite enjoyable in a pretty cliché “tough love mentor with a past” role. He brings life and energy and an amusing voice of reason to this unbelievable story which can’t seem to choose a lane. The first hour leans heavily into the brand mythologizing as it sets everything up and it is dreadful. It’s almost in spite of everything that the second half, which focuses on the actual racing, is more successful. How could it not be? It’s a very pleasing underdog makes good journey, with a very pleasant and empathetic lead actor in Archie Madekwe. His parents, played by Djimon Hounsou and former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell-Horner, are also appealing, if underused and trotted out only for maximum emotional impact. We could have used a little more of the Mardenborough clan and a little less of Jann’s love interest, Audrey (Maeve Courtier-Lilley) who is introduced to another peripheral female character in a 5-second scene that is so out of nowhere and random that I wondered if it was only there so that the very male film could technically pass the Bechdel Test.
Poor Orlando Bloom gets a little lost in everything as the high-anxiety Nissan marketing executive Danny Moore, who is frustratingly underdrawn and who the movie goes through great pains to avoid making the enemy. That goes to the cocky, model-y young driver who is there to represent the big money side of European racing, in his gold car branded by Moët & Chandon. Instead, Bloom is kind of just a tour guide to the high life, uttering lines like “ever been on a private jet before?” to the kid from Cardiff. But most egregious is the depiction of the Japanese Nissan executives, who are essentially nameless, characterless background actors in suits called on to either nod or look vaguely confused as Danny tries to reassure them that these amateur drivers won’t die.
The movie on the page wants to romanticize the simple pleasures of race car driving outside of the glitz and glamour of the high-rolling industry, and has been directed by someone who doesn’t actually believe that the driving is enough and that it does need all the trimmings of a “Fast and Furious” spinoff to make it exciting to an audience. It’s the MTV cut of Winona Ryder’s documentary from “Reality Bites,” the one the slick marketing guy would make. And I think therein lies the essential incongruity of what amounts to a moderately entertaining, very long Super Bowl spot quality commercial for PlayStation and Nissan. “Gran Turismo,” a Sony Pictures release, is rated PG13 by the Motion Picture Association for “intense action and some strong language.” Running time: 135 minutes. Two stars out of four.