Rocky is one of the greatest films ever made by anyone. It’s not hard to understand why. You’ve got a lived-in, realistic performance by Sylvester Stallone, a supporting cast of actors rather than movie stars, and direction that knows when to ease back and when to go hard. Top to bottom, it’s made by people working at the peak of their powers.
What makes it endure, though? I think that would be Stallone’s screenplay. The legend is that he wrote it in three days and change. Say what you will about Stallone as a writer, but the end result of his script was kind of the creation of the inspirational sports drama. There were others, but none hit as hard. This genre has a number of easily identifiable tropes, including:
- An underdog hero nobody believes in
- A crusty trainer attempting to atone for a moment in their past
- An antagonist that’s a confident dick
- Montages! Montages! Montages!
- An underdeveloped love interest
- A feel-good and triumphant tone
The late summer blockbuster Gran Turismo doesn’t feature a marblemouthed palooka, nor does it feature its hero pummeling sides of beef. But in every other way that matters, it shares DNA with the Italian Stallion. As we were walking out of the screening, my kid looked to me and solemnly said, “We just got Rocky’d.” Too right, kid, too right.
The Rockying begins with Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom), who is absolutely not our hero. How do we know he’s not our hero? Because he’s a marketing executive. He works for Nissan’s racing division, and he has an idea that’s fifty percent idiotic and fifty percent brilliant. Nissan will stage a contest. They’ll create the GT Academy, a place where the best of the best will compete to become professional racers.
The best what, you might be asking? Gamers. In a sequence that’s nearly indistinguishable from a commercial, we learn about Sony’s Gran Turismo driving simulator.* We learn that Sony has gone to obsessive lengths to recreate the entire experience of racing. They have scanned the cars, the automotive parts, the tracks, everything. It’s the next best thing to being an actual racer, right?
Not so much! Over and over, prestigious gearheads refuse Danny’s offer to train the gamers how to race. Danny finally gets his man with Jack Salter (David Harbour), a former driver and current mechanic. Sorry, let’s say “former mechanic” for Capa Racing, since Jack quits after dealing with the arrogance of driver Nicholas Capa (Joshua Stradowski). Will Capa’s towering dickishness be a recurring plot point? Have you seen movies before?
Anyway, the contest opens up. One of the applicants is Welsh teen Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe). He works retail but he loves Gran Turismo. So much so that he’s played thousands of hours and is scary good. He thinks he might have what it takes to be a real driver. His mother (Geri Halliwell) supports him. His father (Djimon Hounsou) wishes his son would put away the video games and do something worthwhile.** But Jann has a dream…
Perhaps it’s appropriate that the director of an underdog story seems to be experiencing one of his own. Neill Blomkamp exploded with his debut feature District 9, one of the smartest sci-fi movies of the twenty-first century. Big things were on the horizon for him, but after three films that underperformed and projects that failed to come together at all, Blomkamp seemed to be a permanent inmate of director jail.
With Gran Turismo, Blomkamp has escaped. That’s good, since he’s always been a talented visual stylist and a thoughtful filmmaker. While I have my problems with this film, it’s not due to Blomkamp’s work. The racing scenes are filmed coherently without losing speed and energy, and Blomkamp taps the brakes occasionally to show us who Jann is and what he cares about. I also liked Blomkamp’s use of CGI. An early moment shows Jann playing the game…sorry, simulator, and a CGI race car forms around him. Later, the opposite happens. In both sequences, Blomkamp uses CGI to give us a glimpse into Jann’s feelings instead of simply bludgeoning the audience into submission.
What disappoints me is that the screenplay by Jason Hall, Zach Baylin, and Alex Tse can’t measure up to the direction. It’s not all the way bad, and there are moments that are genuinely funny, warm, and fist-pumpingly awesome. The gradually thawing relationship between Jann and the acerbic Jack is consistently strong, and as much as there’s the old trope of the plucky rookie and the burned out mentor, it works here. However, that’s basically the only characterization that works well. Why is marketing dude Danny so passionate about the GT Academy idea? Why is Jann’s dad so against his long shot dream of being a racer when he himself overcame the odds to become a soccer player? Does Jann’s girlfriend Audrey (Maeve Courtier-Lilley) care about anything beyond supporting Jann? I think of a film like Creed that did such good work sketching out smaller characters. That attention enriches the main characters and the film as a whole, and I wish more attention had been paid here. My other issue is that the screenplay is very, very derivative of both inspirational sports movies and racing movies. If you know the expected tropes and story beats, you will have an almost totally unsurprising experience. Is that due to screenwriter laziness? Probably not. Is it due to studio and/or corporate meddling? Almost certainly.***
When your film has a strong director and a less strong script, you need skilled performers to elevate the material. That’s what we have here. The biggest name is David Harbour, and while he’s doing a variation of his “grump with a heart of gold” Hopper from Stranger Things, he’s so good at it that he nabs the biggest laughs and solid emotional moments. As Jann, Archie Madekwe is enormously likable and he carries the lead role with ease. His role isn’t terribly complex, but it doesn’t need to be. At the end of the day, I liked him, I wanted him to win, and that was good enough for me.
We should take a quick moment to sing the praises of the mighty Djimon Hounsou. Take a moment to look at his frankly insane filmography. The reason he’s been working for so long is that he can elevate a fairly thankless role into something compelling. He does that as Steve Mardenborough. Consider that his character has two modes, disapproval and joyful shock. In every scene, Hounsou shows us different shades, different sides to Steve. He transforms a two-dimensional supporting character into a fully realized person.
Is Gran Turismo basically Rocky in a race car? Yes. Is that a bad thing? No. In our screening, people laughed, cheered, and applauded multiple times. I saw a sea of smiling faces leaving the theater. It could be deeper, but at the end of the day, it’s a precision engineered crowd pleaser. For an end of summer blockbuster, I’ll take it.
*The film tells us over and over that Gran Turismo isn’t a video game, it’s a driving simulator.
**An ironic moment that the script barely touches on is that Jann’s father is a former professional soccer player.
***If you’ve seen the marketing for Gran Turismo, you know that this is a “based on/inspired by a true story” kind of thing. While I’ve come to learn about myself that I don’t care about accuracy and simply want a well done film, you might feel differently. If so, this article will tell you more about Jann Mardenborough’s real story.