Every now and then, a film will surprise you; either with its technical prowess, storytelling, or emotional delivery. While it’s very rare for a film to surprise in all three areas, it isn’t impossible. Sony Pictures’ Gran Turismo, a riveting, stylish, racing biopic centered around the video game of the same name, hits those marks with flying colors. Although the film carries the name of the decades old, legendary video game series, the film itself is not a video game adaptation. Instead, it’s inspired by the unbelievable true life story of Jann Mardenborough, who went from underachieving teenage gamer to professional race car driver.
Gran Turismo premieres August 25th in theaters!
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the film being covered here wouldn’t exist. To support the WGA and SAG-AFTRA, donate to the Entertainment Community Fund.
Based on the true story of Jann Mardenborough, the film is the ultimate wish fulfillment tale of a teenage Gran Turismo player whose gaming skills won a series of Nissan competitions to become an actual professional racecar driver.
Directed by: Neill Blomkamp Screenplay by: Jason Hall and Zach Baylin.
Based on the PLAYSTATION STUDIOS video game.
Produced by: Doug Belgrad, Asad Qizilbash, Carter Swan and Dana Brunetti.
Executive Producers: Kazunori Yamauchi, Hermen Hulst, Jason Hall and Matthew Hirsch.
Cast: David Harbour, Orlando Bloom, Archie Madekwe, Darren Barnet, Geri Halliwell Horner and Djimon Hounsou.
Gran Turismo is a trademark of Sony Interactive Entertainment Inc.
REVIEW – Taking a Different Track than Typical Video Game Adaptations
Out the gate, we’re introduced to the not-so-high-profile life and times of Jack Salter (David Harbour); once a great racer who is now a pit mechanic to Nicholas Capa (played with ice-cold smugness by Josha Stradowski)—a silver spoon-fed pro racer surrounded by yes-men. Jack is approached by Nissan Europe’s General Manager, Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom), based on real life GT Academy founder Darren Cox, to shake up the game (pun fully intended), by hosting a competition to find the greatest racing simulator drivers and training them to become full-fledged pro drivers—a feat never before achieved in racing history.
Fed up with the pomp and pagentry of the elitist society that encircles competitive racing, Salter takes Moore up on his offer with no promises that he’ll even be able to find a half-decent player at all. Cut to the Mardenborough home, with former pro footballer (soccer, if you’re from the U.S.) Steve Mardenborough (Djimon Honsou), his wife Lesley (Geri Halliwell-Horner, also known as Ginger Spice) and their sons Coby (Daniel Puig) and Jann (Archie Madekwe). With the exception of older brother Coby, the Mardenboroughs are a modest family. Yet Jann dreams of become a professional race car driver, inspired by his favorite video game series, Gran Turismo. But with no way to achieve these goals, his father tries to reel Jann back to reality, with frequent lectures and even taking him to work coupling train cars as a warning to snap out of his perceived delusions.
But Jann defies all the odds, and after automatically being drafted into the GT Academy tournament, places first overall in the competition. The next step is competing against other top five international players in a Nissan Boot Camp, reluctantly coached by Salter and Moore, which is where the fun really begins.
Gran Turismo is a film as centered around the people as it is the cars. Director Neill Blomkamp found perfect chemistry between up-and-coming talent Archie Madekwe and David Harbour. At first, Salter despises Jann for being an outsider before seeing a younger version of himself in the upstart. Harbour has mastered the prickly father figure role, which he also played as Jim Hopper of Stranger Things, but there’s a little more depth here. It could be the subject matter that really grounds his performance, but somehow he finds both vulnerability in Jack Salter’s pain and compassion in his anger. Madekwe does a fine job, finding a great balance with his pacing, tone, and finding the right moments to go all in with his emotions and physicality (like when Jann learns a spectator was killed in a freak car accident at his race). Madekwe could have been a bit more expressive at times, but the stillness helps to convey the shock a teenager might feel when thrust into such sudden circumstances.
Orlando Bloom seems to have hit his stride as Danny Moore. It’s a real pleasure to see his acting style graduate from the constant smolders of the early aughts to the very even-handed portrayal here. Moore is an optimist but still a businessman at heart – he contemplates calling a qualifier race against Mardenborough for the sake of marketability – but, he never comes off as a evil or even cynical. Djimon Honsou is another gem in the cast and—as is too often the case with him—is underutilized. He plays the role of concerned father with a sympathy that the audience can’t help but understand. Since the days of Blood Diamond, the way subtle ways Honsou controls his smiles, cries and other various emotions are truly a masterclass in acting, and his performance in Gran Turismo is no exception. The climax of Jann and Steven finally meeting before the 24 Hour of Le Mans race will get a tear out of anyone.
While the film has some highly technical elements that racing enthusiasts will undoubtedly enjoy, the presentation of the specifics are fascinating enough to capture anyone’s attention. It will also help make the casual viewer appreciate that these drivers do a whole lot more than just “drive in a circle.” When the drivers step onto the track, it feels reminiscent of astronauts getting ready for a launch; the preparation and equipment that go into each race is mind blowing. Blomkamp and cinematographer Jacques Jouffret wasted no time or effort in showcasing the beauty and power in these vehicles and locations.
Gran Turismo is a gorgeous film. Shot in part on Sony Venice 2 CineAlta cameras (35mm), all the intricacies of each race, and even everyday life, are captured with stunning clarity. The color grading really stood out in the best ways. There’s a rich balance of gold and blue that underlays the shots that adds a regal feel to it—very much in line with the affluence of the sport itself.
The pacing and direction are steady and make the film feel like much more than a typical video game inspired movie. Blomkamp delivers a hero’s journey and no aspect of the film feels underdeveloped, except for the relationship between Jann and Audrey (Maeve Courtier-Lilley). While we certainly understand that Jann loves Audrey, and there’s plenty chemistry between the two actors, a little more show than tell is needed to sell that relationship. In some ways, it’s probably best they didn’t try to shoehorn a love story into the film, but at the same time, a little more cooking-time could have helped.
Originally, film, tv and video game composer Stephen Barton was the pick for the soundtrack; however, once production began Lorne Balfe took his place. Balfe has credits in film and games alike, including long-running video game series Call of Duty. It was a genius move to enlist Balfe, because he captured aspects of both mediums successfully. Scoring video games is an underrated task; whereas film is linear, games are interactive, and the music is programmed to respond to the twists, turns and reactions of the player. Balfe’s score keeps you as engaged as a racing simulator while delivering the scale of a feature film.
As the film powers to its high octane conclusion, the 24 Hour of Le Mans, and a team up between Mardenborough and the GT Academy runner-ups against several arch rival teams, we begin to truly understand Mardenborough and the power of belief. In a world of rushed biopics and half-cooked game adaptations, Gran Turismo takes a different track and everything about this film feels earned.
RATING – 3.5/5 Pocky
Elijah Isaiah Johnson is a writer/illustrator/animator. His most recently published works include the Amazon best-seller Nightmare Detective, Noir is the New Black, the Comixology Indie best-selling series Leaders of the Free World, The Formula and much more.