Jann Mardenborough, the main character of Gran Turismo, doesn’t like it when people call the titular PlayStation product a video game. It’s a racing simulator, he’s quick to point out. And so it is. Millions of gamers have been able to virtually experience how it feels behind the wheel, thanks to meticulous design, mechanics, and recreations of actual tracks. Mardenborough knows full well how authentic it is. He went from “sim driver” to real-life racing champion. The movie tells a version of his story that’s slightly fictionalized, yet still totally entertaining.
Played by Midsommar’s Archie Madekwe, Jann comes from a blue-collar background in Great Britian where he lives with father Steve (Djimon Hounsou) and mother Leslie (Geri Halliwell Horner, formerly “Ginger Spice” from the Spice Girls). He’s obsessed with Gran Turismo, having logged thousands of hours mastering it. Steve is none too happy with his son’s desire to become a racer, believing it to be a fantasy.
Fantasies sometimes come true, of course. Nissan marketing executive Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom) has come up with a plan to put ten of the world’s best Gran Turismo players into a training program/competition. The winner will have the chance to become a professional race car driver. Jann gets accepted, then trains under Jack Salter (David Harbour), a retired racer who takes no attitude from anyone. What he discovers is that time behind the simulator prepares him in some areas, but not others.
Gran Turismo employs a lot of cliches in telling Jann’s story. You’ve got the disapproving father who eventually comes around. You’ve got the no-nonsense mentor. You’ve got the snooty rival, Nicholas Capa (Josha Stradowski), who comes right out of the William Zabka School of Onscreen Bullying. There’s even a generic love interest in the form of Audrey (Maeve Courtier-Lilley), who shows up periodically to demonstrate complete devotion to Jann.
Those cliches rob the movie of originality; they do not, however, rob it of fun. Like The Karate Kid, this is a picture that works because it executes familiar tropes effectively. You need not care about video games or racing to get caught up in the drama. Madekwe is winning as Jann, quickly earning our rooting interest. He lets us feel the character’s passion, which in turn ensures we become invested in his successes and failures. David Harbour is even better, elevating the “tough mentor with a heart of gold” idea into a three-dimensional portrait of a man who understands the responsibility of having human lives in his hands. He’s also funny spitting out sarcastic dialogue.
Director Neill Blomkamp (District 9) infuses the racing scenes with high energy. Using drones and helicopters, his cameras swoop over the cars, charge toward them, and follow an inch off their bumpers. Closeups of gas pedals hitting the floor and pistons firing are utilized to create the necessary sense of speed. Graphics are put onscreen to help us follow Jann during the races, as well as to aid us in understanding key concepts such as the “line” he sees that lets him navigate the crowded courses. The result is thrilling.
For all those reasons, Gran Turismo is a sleek, enjoyable trek through the world of racing, one that recognizes the people driving the cars are just as appealing as the cars themselves.
out of four
Gran Turismo is rated PG-13 for intense action and some strong language. The running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes.