Archie Madekwe and David Harbour star in Columbia Pictures GRAN TURISMO. Photo by: Gordon Timpen Image Credit: Gordon Timpen

"You have to commit." That is a refrain repeated throughout "Gran Turismo," the latest video-game-adjacent film from Sony Pictures.

It's a lesson that the characters learn, but the filmmakers never fully embrace.

The film, which is more grounded in reality than Sony's other game adaptations, follows the true story of Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe), a gamer and Gran Turismo superfan with the goal of one day becoming a professional driver. Jann comes from a working-class family in Cardiff, Wales, and has been discouraged from pursuing his dream by his parents (Djimon Hounsou and Geri Horner, a.k.a. Ginger Spice). Because of his skill in the racing simulator, Jann is invited to participate in the GT Academy, a competition and training program in which skilled Gran Turismo players are offered the chance to parlay their skills into careers as professional drivers. The academy is run by two fictionalised characters: a Nissan executive (Orlando Bloom) and a retired driver (David Harbour).

The story plays out as expected. The traditional beats of a summer crowd-pleaser feature prominently, with the addition of jokes and references to video game culture. The script (by Jason Hall and Zach Baylin) is not flashy but is structurally sound - helping to drive home the film's central messages and themes.

Archie Madekwe stars in Columbia Pictures GRAN TURISMO. Photo by: Gordon Timpen Image Credit: Gordon Timpen

Both Bloom and Harbour turn in commendable performances. Bloom plays a slightly slimy salesman - one who has to be convinced of Jann's ability on the racetrack and in front of cameras. Harbour provides both emotional weight and comic relief as a grumpy and unwilling mentor to Jann. His performance is quite similar to what he does in "Stranger Things," adding levity to what could have been an overly serious character.

David Harbour stars in Columbia Pictures GRAN TURISMO. Photo by: Gordon Timpen Image Credit: Gordon Timpen

As for Madekwe, he is understated but strong, working off good supporting actors and able to hit the emotional beats needed for the character. However, a romantic subplot feels underdeveloped. At over two hours, the film sometimes drags when building Jann's relationship to Audrey (Maeve Courtier-Lilley), a young woman he meets at a party, and this thread is ultimately the weakest part of the film.

Where "Gran Turismo" works best is on the track. Director Neill Blomkamp adds some formalist flourishes to the driving sequences, turning what could have been a monotonous series of races into entertaining and engaging fun. An early driving sequence uses video game mechanics as a visual gag, while later races use a heads-up display to convey information.

On the surface, "Gran Turismo" is a departure from Blomkamp's previous style and themes. The South African-born filmmaker made a splash in 2009 with "District 9," a sci-fi thriller that was a critical and commercial success, following up with "Elysium" in 2013 and "Chappie" in 2015. Those are (mostly) original stories dealing with present-day or near-future dystopias, featuring classic themes like aliens, space stations and artificial intelligence. They were also either written or co-written by Blomkamp, and are inherently political texts. "District 9" and "Elysium" are both commentaries on refugee policy, while "Chappie" is a response to the reality of modern policing. "Gran Turismo" is neither speculative fiction nor nearly as political. All the same, the fundamental pull of Blomkamp's interests - the changing relationship between humanity and technology - is still there: not entirely absent, just updated.

In many ways, "Gran Turismo" is an amalgamation of other car-centric flicks. Its structure mirrors John Frankenheimer's "Grand Prix," its drone shots are reminiscent of last year's "Ambulance" and its final act seems lifted directly from "Ford v Ferrari." Blomkamp never reaches the heights of those movies, but he uses their cinematic language to effectively tell Jann's story.

In the end, "Gran Turismo" feels a little miscalibrated. Some of its most emotionally impactful moments come up short because of weak performances. The sequences that should inspire awe are often hindered by strange editing rhythms and poor sound mixing. Some of the races are heart-stopping, while others feel weightless and unimportant.

Despite these issues, "Gran Turismo" is a decent summer flick that should ideally be enjoyed on the big screen. Flawed but impressive in size and sound, it is, when all is said and done, a pretty good time at the movies.

Our Rating
Stars: 2.5 stars out of 4
Running Time: 135 minutes
Rating guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars okay, one star poor, no stars waste of time