As underdog car-racing movies go, think of “Gran Turismo” as “Nerd v. Ferrari.” Solidly assembled but less stirring than it should be – in part because it takes too many laps – the film moves, ironically, too slow to deliver as a big-screen attraction but might fare better with its eventual pitstops on at-home platforms.
There’s also a game component to this fact-based story, adding to the symmetry Sony’s movie division previously exploited on “Uncharted” with PlayStation, which is in the midst of an aggressive game-to-screen push in movies as well as TV (see “The Last of Us” and “Twisted Metal”).
Here, the most enticing aspect is the idea of taking skilled game players and giving them a chance to put those reflexes to use as actual race car drivers, the brainchild of a marketing genius at Nissan played by Orlando Bloom – not completely slimy, but the kind of bloke who tends to put business considerations ahead of everything else.
Nissan enlists surly engineer Jack Salter (David Harbour, the movie’s gruff if big-hearted anchor) to oversee the program, which centers on Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe), a British youth whose passion for gaming – and failure to do much else – puts him at odds with his stern immigrant father (Djimon Hounsou).
Once Jann acquires his Willy Wonka-style golden ticket through an online virtual-driver contest, the movie segues into an extended training sequence, with Salter warning that drivers are committed athletes and that he very much doubts these digital dabblers have the right stuff to compete against them.
‘Gran Turismo’ hits the Hollywood track
“This is not a game,” he barks at his young charges.
But of course, there’s no movie in that, so “Gran Turismo” migrates to the track, where Jann must prove himself – while fending off the skepticism of racing veterans toward Nissan’s “sim drivers” – building (just like “Ford v. Ferrari,” incidentally) toward the grueling ordeal of Le Mans.
Director Neill Blomkamp (“District 9”) seems like a slightly unorthodox choice for this sort of old-fashioned sports film, but he does what he can to conjure excitement around the racing, as well as visualize how Jann and his peers apply gamer skills to the perilous transition of putting them to practical use.
That said, “Gran Turismo” takes too long building up to that, given its reliance on sports movie cliches and tired detours involving Jann’s family and his courtship of a girl for whom he has harbored a long-simmering crush.
Already playing in parts of Europe and Africa, Sony delayed the movie’s release a few weeks in the US, in part to get out of the way of the “Barbie” buzzsaw. Alas, “Gran Turismo’s” blandness is separate from such external considerations, presenting the kind of shortcomings from which it’s possible to run, but not hide.
“Gran Turismo” premieres August 25 in US theaters. It’s rated PG-13.