If someone were to tell your teenage self you could jump into your favourite game and live it for real, would you do it? For teen “Gran Turismo” player Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe), that opportunity presents itself when he’s given the chance to become a professional racecar driver.
Stamped “based on a true story” in the opening credits, “Gran Turismo” – also the name of the popular racing simulator series – follows Mardenborough, who graduated from “GT Academy” in 2011 and went on to compete in multiple racing championships as a pro.
(For the uninitiated, “GT Academy” was an international virtual-to-reality competition by Nissan, PlayStation, and Polyphony Digital that kicked off in 2008 and was phased out in 2016.)
The movie starts with Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom), a marketing executive who pitches the idea of opening GT Academy to Nissan’s motorsports division. He recruits former driver turned mechanic Jack Salter (David Harbour) to train the players.
Coming on top in the qualifying race, Jann earns a spot alongside other simulation racers. As the group is eliminated one by one at the academy camp, he forms a bond with Salter, earning the latter’s approval through his determination and racing expertise.
After narrowly winning to determine who will represent Nissan in a real race, Jann is told he will earn a professional licence if he finishes at least fourth in any one of a series of qualifying races.
Viewers are then whisked to all four corners of the world, as the teen from Wales gradually improves his standing race after race, culminating in him competing in the gruelling 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Naturally, the script takes some liberties in dramatising certain events to make them more exciting. Still, here’s a fun fact: the real Mardenborough serves as his own stunt double in this film!
As with all underdog sports dramas, it’s imperative for the protagonist to be someone you’d want to cheer on. Madekwe plays Jann with a boyish charm, his hopefulness and perseverance endearing you to his performance as a whole.
When he suffers a devastating car crash, the British actor portrays his heartbreak and grief with so much intensity that you can’t help but feel for him.
While “Gran Turismo” centres on Madekwe’s Mardenborough, it is Harbour’s Salter who is undoubtedly the scene stealer. His character is initially cynical, telling the sim racers at one point: “I’m gonna prove to you that you don’t have what it takes” – not exactly the stuff of TED Talks!
His rough-around-the-edges vibe is common among mentor characters in such movies, and Harbour delivers this scepticism and jadedness effortlessly.
Still, as he grows to be a father figure to the young Jann, their scenes together are what give the fast-paced film heart and levity.
Meanwhile, as Jann’s actual father Steve, Djimon Hounsou uses his limited screen time well, playing a well-meaning dad who wants his son to achieve something real in life – but ultimately simply desires for him to be happy and do what he loves.
Production-wise, while the racing and action scenes can’t compare with the critically acclaimed “Ford v Ferrari”, director Neill Blomkamp (“District 9”) uses the budget well, blending practical effects and CGI scenes that allow you to fully enjoy the speedy sequences.
If there’s one thing that might take you out of the viewing experience, though, it’s the effusive use of product placement: brands such as Sony, Nissan and Puma are everywhere!
Then there’s the matter of the real-life crash that left one spectator dead, which actually took place two years after the events in this film. It’s brought forward in the timeline here to act as a motivator for Jann, a shift that some critics call distasteful.
All in all, despite being a loose retelling of actual events, “Gran Turismo” treads a familiar but entertaining path. It’s a solid sports-themed film – even if the profusion of logos and blatant embedded marketing might make you feel at times like you’re watching a two-hour ad.
As of press time, ‘Gran Turismo’ is screening in cinemas nationwide.