Years ago, a very popular word being overused at Hollywood meetings was "synergy" — the idea of compatibility where the creative featured in a particular movie could bounce across into other forms of entertainment. Early examples were pinball machines inspired by a film.
As the years went by, some popular games started a reverse transition — becoming movies themselves. The list is long, from "Clue" to "Battleship." But the idea went into overdrive with the increasingly realistic video games that hit the big screen with a bang — movies like "Super Mario Bros.," "Resident Evil" and "Mortal Kombat."
Now, Sony has really hit the synergy button with "Gran Turismo," which started as a popular auto-racing video game from its PlayStation division. That game led to a partnership with Nissan in which players entered a competition to get the chance to drive real race cars, which then led to one of those gamers making a splash on the real-life racing circuit, which of course has now led to a Sony Pictures motion picture about that journey. As the ads say: "Based on a true story." Whew! That IS synergy.
Archie Madekwe ("Midsommar") stars as the gamer, Jann Mardenborough. The young Englishman is living at home with his mom (ex-Spice Girl Jeri Halliwell Horner) and blue-collar dad (Djimon Housou from "Gladiator") — a former professional soccer player who pushes his son to do more than just staying at home, focused on "Gran Turismo."
That chance comes courtesy of a marketing executive (Orlando Bloom, the ex-Pirate of the Caribbean) who gets Nissan and the makers of the video game to put on a competition to find gamers who might be able to make it on a real-life racing track. Bloom plays the role with the right mix of likable enthusiasm with the slimy hint of a carnival showman.
The final part of the equation is the person who can train these gamers to drive actual race cars and that's left to a former racer-turned-chief engineer named Jack Salter, played by David Harbour from "Stranger Things." Harbour's performance as the weary and somewhat reluctant driving teacher is a real highlight of the film. He deftly delivers sarcastic lines to the out-of-shape young gamers with an off-handed relish.
"Last time you stretched your legs was when you went to the refrigerator to grab some Hot Pockets," he tells them as they try to run laps.
Sure, he's gruff, but you just know he's going to come through for these kids.
Director Neill Blomkamp ("District 9" and "Elysium") does a wonderful job with the racing sequences and comes up with a few new shots that help dial up the tension: He's added close-ups of various mechanical parts on the cars as they engage and operate during the race. These are very dramatic and help to highlight the danger and complexity of the sport. He also depicts some of the racing traditions by detailing the truly impressive ceremonies at the start of the famed 24-hour LeMans auto race.
The second half of the film is much more powerful than the first half. The script by Jason Hall ("American Sniper") and Zach Baylin ("King Richard") motors along very quickly for the first hour, but probably too quickly. For instance, more time could have been spent with the scenes at the Nissan PlayStation GT Academy, where the gamers are put through their paces to see who will make the final cut. The movie, unfortunately, just blasts through that part of the story.
Some of the characters also feel a little forced — like a villain in the form of an obnoxious, elite driver who dislikes the gamers but just kind of pops in and out. It's the same with Archie's girlfriend character, who doesn't have a lot to do. Both could have been developed more.
The back half of "Gran Turismo" features a lot more drama, including some gut-wrenching crashes (The filmmakers have been criticized for making the death that occurred in one of the accidents a major motivation for the main character, even though the real incident happened much, much later.).
Despite that, the real-life aspects of the story are undeniably inspiring. It makes what could have been a run-of-the-mill racing movie into something a bit more memorable. And that might be the synergy for which Sony has been hoping.
FYI: Do stay for the end credits to see the photos and footage of some of the actual people.
3 stars out of 5
In theaters beginning Aug. 25