The Grand Tour
Directed by Neill Blomkamp
Starring Archie Madekwe, David Harbour, Orlando Bloom
Released August 25th, 2023
We meet Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe) as a young man living in Wales with his parents. He spends most of his free time playing Gran Turismo, a relatively realistic and quite popular car racing simulator. His mum Lesly (Geri Halliwell-Horner) figures his obsession with video games is just a phase. His father Steve (Djimon Hounsou), a former footballer, wishes his son would take an interest in sports. Meanwhile, Jann is excited because he just got his hands on a new game controller that looks like a steering wheel.
The credits say Gran Turismo is based on the video game of the same name, but more accurately it’s based on a real-life competition involving the video game that allowed gamers the chance to race real cars on real tracks in reality. Based on their proficiency at the game, young people from eight different countries were chosen to train at something called GT Academy for a chance to drive for Team Nissan. Mechanic Jack Salter (David Harbour) thinks expecting kids who play video games to be able to learn the nuances of racing real cars is a dangerous idea. I agree with him! This sounds like a bad idea. Jann is already familiar with driving actual cars, as illustrated when he outruns police because he doesn’t want to jeopardize his audition for GT Academy. While he’s dodging the cops on slick city streets, the screen fills up with imagery from the video game, as if he’s inside the simulator. It’s a neat special effect that is used a few times in the movie.
Though the somewhat harsh mechanic Jack worries that he’s not race ready, and the somewhat sleazy Nissan marketing executive Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom) worries that he isn’t press-ready, eventually Jann wins the opportunity to participate in real races. To relax before a race, Jann chills out listening to Kenny G and Enya. The professional racers look down on him and tell him over and again that he doesn’t belong there. For dramatic purposes, a fatality-causing car crash is presented as having happened earlier than it occurred in real life. While it makes for a compelling section of the film, your mileage may vary depending on how you feel about the tragic event being used to set up the main character’s triumphal moment.
Archie Madekwe is likable as Jann, Orlando Bloom looks like he’s having fun, and David Harbour is perfect as our scruffy trainer. Director Neill Blomkamp brings a kinetic energy to the project, though with a running time of more than two hours, the film can feel like it’s dragging on a bit too long. It helps if you don’t find car racing to be a bore. For those of us who aren’t jazzed by fast moving vehicles, there are neat ariel shots of real-world racetracks with video game overlays showing car placement and vector lines on the track as one would see in the Gran Turismo video games.
I think it’s wonderful to see a film that posits that something worthwhile can come from gaming. We haven’t seen that before, unless you count 1984’s science fiction film The Last Starfighter, in which Alex (Lance Guest) was selected to fight in a space war because he was good at a particular video game. Usually, video games in movies are portrayed as a nuisance, as in Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money, where “Fast” Eddie (Paul Newman) admonishes Vincent (Tom Cruise) for not focusing on billiards and spending too much time playing the car racing video game Stocker. One never wants to feel like their hobbies are a waste of time.
These days video games are part of school curriculum, through eSports programs. Gran Turismo the movie amounts to more than just an advertisement for the video game, although it did make me want to check out the current edition of the racing simulator. I harbor no allusions that I could drive race cars professionally, but I have fond memories of late nights more than twenty years ago jamming out to The Cardigans and playing Gran Turismo 2 on the original PlayStation.