Gran Turismo, review: a purringly complacent insult to a great video-game

Archie Madekwe in Gran Turismo
Archie Madekwe in Gran Turismo - Sony

Gran Turismo begins as – and really, never stops being – an adoring advert for the game series of that name, which presents its creator, Kazunori Yamauchi, as a benevolent God. On the first day, he set about developing the most authentic driving simulator ever conceived, making the franchise a flagship for showing off the capabilities of PlayStations from 1997 to the present.

$4.8bn in sales, as of last year, is nothing to sniff at. And sniff at it, the Gran Turismo spin-off most certainly does not. It practically strokes itself, purring with a shiny-happy corporate complacency. Even in long scenes of real-world F1 racing, the game’s graphics make gracefully instructive appearances, and vice versa – smell the symbiosis!

To clinch a zillion cross-promotional opportunities in one fell swoop, they’ve alighted on the true story of Jann Mardenborough (Midsommar’s Archie Madekwe), a devoted gamer from Darlington (and son of Cardiff midfielder Steve Mardenborough) who became the youngest ever winner of the GT Academy competition in 2011.

Dangled before him was the opportunity to become a racer in real life, which Neill Blomkamp’s film presents as an out-of-nowhere flex, cooked up by a marketing exec at Nissan who wants to get potential petrolheads off their sofas. This role is essayed by Orlando Bloom, who seems to have borrowed Tom Hanks’s hair from The Da Vinci Code, and some of Joey’s tips for intense acting from Friends: the most amazing thing about the story as presented is that anyone gave this faker the time of day.

Next up, the training. Enter David Harbour, increasingly good value as the somewhat Statham-esque “Jack Salter”, a grizzled ex-F1 driver traumatised by horrific crashes at Le Mans, and unimpressed by the real-life skills of the Academy’s brightest hopes. He serially sacks them, and only Jann makes the grade, because he’s able to blame crashes correctly on glazed brakes, and makes daredevil passes by waving sayonara to the ideal driving line.

The thrill of the games is matched fleetingly here at best, because it feels like a simulator being put through a simulator, and not all the effects are up to snuff. Script-wise, we don’t just get Formula One, but formulae two through infinity.

It won’t do to have Jann told, through his headset halfway through a race, “Remember, you have to come fourth to qualify”. Emotions are shamelessly dialled in – that’s what Djimon Hounsou’s for as Jann’s tough-loving dad, while Geri Halliwell Horner (F1 royalty, these days) is a daft distraction as mum. The fact that Harbour’s character wells up when Jann sends him a boxfresh digital Walkman certainly reminds us that Sony is calling the shots.

On Mardenborough’s insistence, they include the crash in 2015 when his car lifted off the track and killed a spectator. Madekwe plays the guilt with some force, but it’s quite a lurch to acknowledge how horrifyingly dangerous racing can be, then expect us to cheer him on at Le Mans right afterwards. (The actual timeline has been massively rearranged.)

Way too much of this passes by in a blur of climbing-up-the-rankings montages, while Blomkamp (District 9, Elysium) cravenly lifts whole music tracks from the back catalogue of Michael Mann, who has his Enzo Ferrari biopic out in months. The trouble is that films – unlike racing drivers – can cross the finish line first and still not come close to triumph.

12A cert, 134 min. In cinemas from Wednesday August 9