It took about three decades, but Hollywood has seemingly cracked the video game code with hits like The Super Mario Bros. Movie and The Last of Us. Video game biopics are also becoming a bankable subgenre with Tetris and now Gran Turismo. This isn’t the story of how Kazunori Yamauchi created the long-running racing series. It’s the true story of how 19-year-old Jann Mardenborough went from playing a game in his room to racing for real. It’s a unique approach to the iconic IP, although the execution can feel by the numbers. Thankfully, the skillfully directed racing sequences and a few standout performances go the extra mile.
Archie Madekwe of Midsommar plays Mardenborough, who spends his days behind the wheel of a racing simulator. His father (Djimon Hounsou) never hesitates to tell him that playing Gran Turismo isn’t going to get him anywhere in life. If the film’s title and every sports movie formula are any indication, Mr. Mardenborough will be proven wrong before the credits. Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom) is a Nissan executive with a crazy idea that just might work: a contest that gives PlayStation players a shot at racing. It isn’t long until Mardenborough is attending GT Academy, learning from curmudgeon coach Jack Salter (David Harbour). Salter doubts Moore’s idea will work, but maybe, just maybe, Mardenborough will win him over and reignite his passion for the game.
Nissan and Sony might’ve taken a chance on Mardenborough, although the screenplay for Gran Turismo doesn’t take as many. The dialogue is especially straightforward with lines we’ve heard in a million other underdog stories. It helps that those lines are recited by gifted actors. Hounsou, who’s always struggled to shake his underrated status, brings gravitas to an otherwise standard stern father. Nobody plays grouchy better than Harbour, who was destined to play a no-nonsense trainer at some point in his career. Bloom gives one of his better performances as a dreamer who still has a cynical side. Madekwe doesn’t match the charisma of his more seasoned co-stars, although that might be the point since Mardenborough is supposed to be a social outsider.
While there are times when Gran Turismo feels stuck in second gear, the film roars to life whenever we hit the race track. Neill Blomkamp’s post-District 9 output has been mostly underwhelming, but Gran Turismo marks his best directorial effort in over a decade. Just as the game authentically captures the sensation of burning rubber, the film pulls off a similar feat. The editing, cinematography, and sound design warrant comparison to Ford v Ferrari. Even if you can predict what’s going to happen, Blomkamp’s direction makes for an exciting ride.
At the film’s core is a fascinating true story… surrounded by creative liberties. While Mardenborough is a real figure, many of the film’s supporting players are fictional. Likewise, elements of the real-life story are either rearranged or omitted. At the end of the road, though, Gran Turismo captures the spirit of Mardenborough’s story. Just as everyone has their doubts about Mardenborough, you might have reservations going into Gran Turismo, but you should be won over by the final lap. Yes, it’s essentially a PlayStation commercial, but something similar can be said about Barbie and Air. Gran Turismo isn’t in the same league as those movies, but it runs circles around Need for Speed.