THE STORY – A player wins a series of Nissan-sponsored video game competitions through his gaming skills and becomes a real-life professional race car driver.
THE CAST – David Harbour, Orlando Bloom, Archie Madekwe, Darren Barnet, Geri Halliwell Horner & Djimon Hounsou
THE TEAM – Neil Blomkamp (Director), Jason Hall & Zach Baylin (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 134 Minutes
Twenty-five years ago, Kazunori Yamauchi created the most realistic racing simulator in the world, making racing accessible to anyone. The video game was called Gran Turismo, and as someone who has played the game before, you could tell that compared to other driving games out there, this one was attempting to do something much more grounded within reality. Naturally, as someone with very little interest in cars, I didn’t stick with it, and I gravitated toward other racing games when I was younger. However, the world of “Gran Turismo” grew to 85 million players and became so accurate to real-life racing that what transpired next would lead to the Neil Blomkamp-directed movie we have before us, also titled “Gran Turismo.” With a story that is as inspiring as it is unbelievable, the real-life telling of Jann Mardenborough’s transition from hardcore gamer to professional racer is better than it has any right to be and represents a win for Blomkamp finally, who has struggled in the years since his promising feature directorial debut, “District 9,” to live up to that film’s potential.
Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe) is living in Cardiff, Wales, U.K., along with his brother Cai (Daniel Puig), his mother (Spice Girl Geri Halliwell), and once professional footballer now railyard worker father (Djimon Hounsou). Jann’s father wants his son to stop spending hours upon hours playing video games (mainly Gran Turismo, as Jaan imagines himself in a real-life car while playing the game), leave his room, and do something with his life. Meanwhile, Nissan Marketing Executive Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom) pitches an idea he has in Tokyo for the GT Academy, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take the best Gran Turismo players in the world, have them compete with one another to earn a contract with Nissan as a professional race car driver. Danny elicits the help of former professional race car driver, now chief engineer Jack Salter (David Harbour), to get the young kids ready to go from playing a simulator in their rooms to driving over 350 mph in a dangerous motor vehicle with life or death risk. Jack is convinced none of the ten finalists have what it takes to make it, and he’s primarily there to prove they cannot succeed at making this shift. Driven by desire, with countless hours of skill and research, and aided by the calm tunes of Kenny G and Enya, Jaan is out to prove Jack, his father, and anyone else who doubts him wrong as he seeks to change his life and do the thing he believes he was meant to do.
It’s quite astonishing to find out the story behind “Gran Turismo” actually is real, as many wondered how Playstation and Sony Pictures would adapt the video game for the big screen. While a few artistic liberties have been taken in the telling of Jaan’s inspirational story (he wasn’t the first graduate of the GT Academy, but he certainly was the most successful with the best story to tell) and it can all serve as one giant product ad for Playstation and Gran Turismo, Neil Blomkamp does a fine job of telling a predictable but exhilarating story.
Blomkamp places the audience in the point of view of Jaan multiple times throughout the film as we see shots from inside the car through his eyes. That first-person point of view replicates one of many angles one can play in the Gran Turismo video game, giving the audience the same “you are there” feeling players experience when they play the game and racers feel when they drive through the track. Helpful on-screen indicators of the guided drive lines from the game, the racers’ rankings during a race to tell who is winning and who is losing (most of the time, Jaan simply needs to come in at least fourth place, although he and Jack have aspirations to see him place in the top three and land a spot at “the podium” equipped with popping bottles of champagne) and other visual cues help keep the audience hyper-aware of what’s always going on even if they’re a novice when it comes to the world of professional racing. Drone shots, intense camera angles, and skillful sound work all go into creating a thrilling racing film that never betrays reality and has the benefit of a generic but proven formula for an underdog story to get us emotionally invested in Jaan’s journey.
There are some lines of dialogue early on, such as “Those days are in my rearview” or “If you crash, you don’t get to reset,” which give off an early warning that “Gran Turismo” won’t be the most nuanced film you’ll see this year. The screenplay is as predictable as it gets in Hollywood, where every story beat plays out precisely as you would expect. Archie Madekwe is also not the most compelling leading man in the world, a trait which the film plays off at one point as Danny is worried Jaan is not media and press-ready enough to be the poster boy for this marketing gamble. However, the film benefits from some strong supporting work from Bloom, Harbour, and Hounsou, which gives the film the proper levels of emotion, stakes, and levity.
Considering the feelings many had toward its premise and trailer when it was first announced, “Gran Turismo” might be the surprise crowdpleaser of 2023. By the time the film reaches its climatic 24-hour race at Les Mans in France, the filmmaking by Blomkamp and tired but true storytelling is enough to knock you off your feet. It’s a physically and psychologically grueling journey for Jaan to make it to that finish line, as the split-second decisions he has to make can mean life or death for him or someone else on the track. There is pure conviction and grit required to race professionally, an act the film continually tells us very few in the world can accomplish successfully. But by the time he gets there, you’ll be cheering and rushing to look up just how much of this actually happened, wondering with possibility what could be next down the line.