Gran Turismo is part of My Summer of Summer Movies, in which I am attempting to see and review every movie that opens (in Chicago) between Memorial Day and Labor Day, 2023. Read all about this ill-advised plan here

I suppose everyone who has ever gotten good at a video game has fantasized—at least in passing—about transferring those skills to real-life situations. When I was in college, I had a First World War flight simulation game called Red Baron that seemed completely realistic. (This was the early 90s, mind you, when loading times took hours, graphics were still rudimentary, and color was a miraculous novelty.) I logged so much time on this game that I became secretly convinced that I would not only be able to pilot a real Sopwith Camel—if ever called upon to do so—but also hold my own against Manfred von Richthofen himself. 

Alas, I never got the chance to test my dogfighting or barnstorming skills in the real world. But the real-life realization of just such a fantasy is the inspiration for Gran Turismo, Neill Blomkamp's heavily dramatized (though broadly true) telling of Jann Mardenborough's improbable journey from bedroom gamer to professional race-car driver. With such a ready-made, action-infused Cinderella story to work from, it would be difficult to mess up the glossy Hollywood version, and Blomkamp (District 9, Elysium) doesn't: Gran Turismo is a slick, entertaining, reliably exciting sports movie.

Unfortunately, the very hero's-journey beats that seem built into this tale come to work against the film slightly. Screenwriters Jason Hall and Zach Baylin lean a little too far into the familiar and formulaic, often at the expense of what was truly unique and potentially more interesting about Mardenborough's real-life story. The result is a good movie that keeps pace with films we've seen before, instead of a great one that might have pulled thrillingly away from the pack.

Archie Madekwe (Midsommar) plays Mardenborough, whom we first meet as a 19-year-old college dropout living with his family in Cardiff. Jann works part-time selling hosiery in a mall, but most of his time is spent playing Playstation's Gran Turismo, a hyper-realistic racing game/simulator series. He dreams of driving real cars, but his father Steve (Djimon Hounsou)—a former professional footballer turned railway worker—is understandably concerned about his son's lack of realistic direction. "You think you can play a stupid video game and become a race car driver?" he scoffs, in one of several lines that wink a little too broadly at the audience. "There's no future for you in racing."

This relationship is one of the elements the film simplifies into screenplay formula, to the detriment of the film. Steve becomes one of those stock, one-note parental blocking figures who doesn't believe sufficiently in his child's talent and dreams, but his concerns seem entirely reasonable: Jann seems to have no plan or obtainable path towards pursuing his dream. That is, of course, until a miracle arrives in the form of Nissan marketing visionary Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom), who comes up with GT Academy, a program through which the best Gran Turismo players in the world can win a chance to train as real race-car drivers. Naturally, Jann's gaming skills win him a place in the inaugural class.

(In real life, Jann was actually part of the third class to go through GT Academy. One wonders what the producers of Gran Turismo found insufficiently inspirational about Lucas Ordóñez, the winner of the first class, who also became a professional driver, and even went on to make the podium at Le Mans two years before Mardenborough did. Since the film is partially a feature-length commercial—as more and more films seem to be these days—the disqualifying factor may have been simply that Ordóñez severed his relationship with Nissan in 2018. But I digress.)

The improbable leap from virtual reality to reality is the most fascinating part of Mardenborough's story, and the film's trailerswhich focus almost exclusively on GT Academy—seem to know this. Unfortunately, the finished film itself does not, and this is where frustration with Gran Turismo starts to set in. Arriving at the training academy with nine other gaming hopefuls, Jann is met by his stock grizzled mentor figure, Jack Salter (the always welcome David Harbour), a former driver and engineer who is openly skeptical about this entire endeavor. "You think you can do the impossible," he tells his new recruits, in his best gruff drill-sergeant mode. "I'm here to prove that you can't." Like Jann's father's concerns, Salter's skepticism seems entirely justified: Surely there is a big difference between gaming from your bedroom and strapping yourself into a 300-mile-an-hour deathtrap?

Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe) behind the wheel in GRAN TURISMO

But the film, bafflingly, skips over this leap. We should feel that difference the moment Jann first sits down in a real race car, but we don't: Gran Turismo breezes through GT Academy in a series of quick training montages, none of which tell us how Jann was able to adapt his skills to physical reality, and none of which convey either the sensory or emotional differences between driving a simulation and driving for real. I have puzzled over this choice—which is by far the film's biggest misstep—and I can only speculate that Playstation—which co-produced with Columbia, in their second feature film after last year's Uncharted—did not want to underline the differences between the simulator they sell and real life. Gran Turismo is largely product-placement for a game, and so Jann's transition to an actual car is—from a dramatic perspective—disappointingly seamless. (Apparently, I could just hop into a WWI biplane and dogfight with the Aces, with only a few words of advice and some minor adjustments to my attitude. Good to know.)

Squandering what makes this story unique and interesting, Gran Turismo seems in a hurry to become just a standard by-the-book sports movie. Jann makes the leap to professional driver, and we follow all the standard beats of the underdog story: from his early finding of his feet, to his gradual rise to success, through a disastrous setback (a real-life accident Gran Turismo borrows from later in Mardenborough's career for character building), through a triumphant final act in the grueling 24 Hours of Le Mans. (Along the way we even get an obligatory love story, in which an interesting actress named Maeve Courtier-Lilley tries to salvage a girlfriend character so underwritten I'm not sure her name is ever mentioned.) The racing sequences are well-shot and suspenseful—the real Mardenborough, we are informed at the end, served as his character's stunt driver here—but the screenplay makes this dramatic-enough true story feel too much like a phony Hollywood fabrication. Everything comes precisely where we'd expect it to: the successes and failures, the renewals of rivalries, and the well-timed confession of tragic backstory from the gruff but gold-hearted mentor.

(It's a minor critique, but an illustrative one, that this final element struck me as the least realistic dramatic beat in Gran Turismo. The screenplay conveniently saves the revelation of Salter's "mysterious" past—Why did he quit racing?—until Salter needs it to inspire his wounded young charge. But surely a computer savvy kid like Jann would have Googled his teacher's publicly-available biography before he ever met him?)

What is missing in Gran Turismo, ultimately, is emotion. We are constantly told what an extraordinary thing Jann is doing, but we don't feel it. I suspect there is blame to be shared all around—between the direction, the screenplay, the mandate of the corporate overlords, and Madekwe's decent but unexpressive performance—but we never really feel either the fear or exhilaration of sitting in a race-car seat instead of a desk chair. Gran Turismo should have put us inside the car, so we could feel for the first time—as Jann does—the weight of the vehicle, the vibrations, the speed, the terror and thrill of tiny split second adjustments made at 300-miles-per-hour. Instead, ironically, the film—though skillfully enough made—ends up feeling emotionally a little too much like watching someone else play a video game.

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