Gran Turismo

In 1997 former race car driver and the founder of Polyphony Digital, a Playstation videogame company, Kazunori Yamauchi (Takehiro Hira) created a hugely popular racing simulation game, something Nissan's UK marketing executive Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom) pitched ten years later as a television show on an actual course.  In Wales, young player Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe, "Midsommar") fights to make his dream of becoming a real race car driver true when he gets a chance to be one of the first to compete on the show based on “Gran Turismo.”

Laura's Review: B

Director Neill Blomkamp has been struggling ever since his 2009 hit "District 9," his last feature, "Demonic,” utterly abysmal.  He comes roaring back with “Gran Turismo,” which, despite tunnel visioned focus which relegates most support to the sidelines, succeeds with its unlikely true story, exciting racing scenes and a truly noteworthy performance from David Harbour.

When we meet Jann he’s embroiled in the typical parent-child conflict of following a dream instead of finding a path toward a secure future.  All dad Steve (Djimon Hounsou), a former pro footballer now working at a railyard, sees is a kid spending hours in his bedroom playing a video game.  But that ‘game,’ as Jann is quick to remind, is actually a highly complex racing simulation, one which allows players to alter their vehicles with real components and race on meticulously reconstructed actual courses.  A friend from the local arcade will be the one to call Jann to tell him his high score on one of their consoles has resulted in an invite to compete for a spot at GT Academy, where the best of the best will be trained for a race, the winner of which will drive a Nissan GT-R in a real race in a quest to win a contract with Team Nissan.

Jann’s brother Coby (Daniel Puig) convinces him to slip out in their dad’s car the night before his competition by telling him Audrey (Maeve Courtier-Lilley), the girl Jann’s interested in, will be there.  When the cops arrive and pull their friends’ car over, we get a preview of Jann’s actual skills on the road when he panics and bolts.  It will be no surprise he wins at the arcade the next day despite all this, but he’s in for some real challenges when he arrives at GT Academy.  The ‘sim players,’ as they’ll become known, may have the mental acuity necessary for race car driving, but none of them expect the real life physical challenges required to race with the best.

Meanwhile, we’ve seen just how difficult it’s been for Moore to acquire the safety coach Nissan’s made a requirement of his deal, all the professionals he approaches calling it too dangerous.  American former racing driver turned mechanic Jack Salter (David Harbour) only agrees after throwing in the towel when his rich kid pro, Nick Capa (Josha Stradowski), who will become Jann’s chief rival, insults his expertise.  Salter greets the eight GT students (which, surprisingly, contain two women) by telling them he expects none of them to succeed.

While Jann is given a rudimentary GT rival in the U.S.’s Matty Davis (Darren Barnet) it will be Salter who he really must prove himself against and he earns the man’s disapproval by braking too late in an overtake attempt and sliding off the track.  ‘The brakes were glazed,’ Jann tells the man, who dismisses it as a weak excuse, until one of their mechanics tells him the kid was right.  Salter finally realizes the simulation has taught these kids a lot more than he knew and when Jann beats the far more media-savvy Matty by a fraction of a fraction of a second, Salter champions him over Moore’s objections.

The film goes into overdrive as Jann goes into actual professional competition, needing to come in 4th in at least one of seven races in order to get the professional license which will ensure his contract.  Cinematographer Jacques Jouffret plunks us in the driver’s seat, giving us the actual sensation of the varying races (the real Jann acted as Madekwe’s stuntman and those cars are really driving at the speeds shown).  Special effects are used to depict some horrifying crashes, Jann’s 2015 freak accident at Nürburgring killing an onlooker and causing serious psychological setbacks, and Blomkamp, who constructed racecars around Jann in his bedroom, deconstructs them on the track, most notably when Jann tries something controversial that worked in a Le Mans simulation.

Writers Jason Hall ("Thank You for Your Service") and "King Richard's" Zach Baylin concentrate on Jann and Salter’s relationship, to the detriment of just about everyone else (Courtier-Lilley gets a Tokyo celebration montage and Hounsou gets a nice moment in the film’s last act).  But while Jann’s family, including mom Lesley (Geri Horner aka Ginger Spice), and fellow sim racers like Antonio Cruz (Pepe Barroso), disappear for large portions of the film, the deep-voiced Madekwe earns breakout status while Harbour gives the film its heart.

Robin's Review: B+

It is said that truth is stranger than fiction. That seems to be the case with the “based on a true story” story of a young gamer, Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe), who went from computer simulator console to an actual steering wheel and a professional race driving career in “Gran Turismo.”

This true-to-life story tells of the impossible rise of a gamer dedicated to the driving simulator game, Gran Turismo, to international acclaim as real racetrack winner begins simply enough.

Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom) is a marketer for Nissan’s motorsport division and pitches a radical idea to the company board. Select the top 19 Gran Turismo VR game competitors and have them drive against each other. The top player will get a shot at driving a real car in a real race for Nissan.

The story consists of the usual, and frequent, montages that are used to push the action forward as Jann, and the other GT players, goes from VR driver on Gran Turismo to being recruited by Moore for the virtual-to-real race competition.

But, before real race training can begin, Moore must find a safety engineer to oversee the training. This proves problematic and he is forced to recruit the hardest man to get along with, the demanding former driver, Jack Salter (David Harbour).

What makes this real-life story most compelling is that the entire premise – VR gamers turned professional race car driver – seems like an author’s invention of the totally preposterous idea. But, it is real.

One problem that I have with the telling of Jann’s story is that all the other competitors in the GT match are merely background characters, making it look like Mardenborough was a life-force beyond the ability of others. Even during the big finale event – the 24 hour endurance race in Le Mans, France – one would think that Jann drove the whole race single-handed – he did not, but you would not know it watching that finale.

Where “Gran Turismo” excels is in the deft combination of real, live action racing and CGI. You have to watch closely, but you can see that there are real life racers out on the track, not just an assembly of digital bits and bytes. That part, the CGI, comes into play especially well when used to show the construction and deconstruction of the race cars in their component parts. It is very slick and very stylish.

Of the cast, Archie Madewke plays well as the ambitious Jann – who defies his dad, a former soccer star (Djimon Hounsou) who discourages his son for pursuing such folly. (Of course, in the end, dad stands firmly by his side in the throw of a switch of emotion moment.)

Orlando Bloom, as the Idea man for the racing scheme, is two-dimensional at best, and used to move the story along to its exciting conclusion. The real star of the movie, besides the very slick automobiles on display, is David Harbour’s engineer and former fallen racer, Jack Salter. The actor anchors the movie and its characters and makes it believable.

But, the racing – ah, the racing – takes on more traditional racing pics, like “Grand Prix (1966)“ and my personal favorite, Steve McQueen’s 1971 car racing classic, “Le Mans.” It fares quite well, using live action and CGI to convincingly give a you-are-there feel in the cockpit of a 200-mph race car. And, there is ne’er a dull moment.

Sony's Columbia Pictures opens "Gran Turismo" in theaters on 8/25/23.