- The movie Gran Turismo opens today for “sneak preview” in many theaters and nationwide on August 25.
- Based on the PlayStation video game of the same name, it also takes its story from the real-life adventures of racer Jann Mardenborough, who got his start via PlayStation’s GT Academy.
- Watch for spoilers ahead, but we confess we enjoyed this movie.
At this point, hating on motorsports movies is a required activity to retain car-guy cred. You drive stick, you went to Radwood before Hagerty bought it, and you can name every automotive inaccuracy in every racing movie from Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life in 1913—real racing almost never involves having to rescue a lady tied to the railroad tracks—to the recent Ford v. Ferrari in 2019—The Corvette hood! It’s wrong!
We’re certainly not immune, having hated on our share of vehicular cinema. So we went into the screening of Sony Pictures’ video-game docudrama Gran Turismo with a ready serving of jaded irritation in our hearts. Know what? It’s not that bad.
Initially, hearing Sony was making a Gran Turismo movie, we assumed it would be a cartoonish fictional piece; an empty-headed, bang-shifted, action movie at best, a chaotic two-hour commercial for the PlayStation Gran Turismo video game (sorry, driving simulator) at worst. While there is plenty of product placement in Gran Turismo, the plot is based on a true story and has some genuinely thought-provoking and heart-pounding moments among the crashes and clichés.
If You Keep Going, Watch for SPOILERS AHEAD
Gran Turismo is more than loosely based on the story of a racer who got his start in Nissan PlayStation’s GT Academy, which was a marketing move by Nissan and Sony to take high-performing drivers from the virtual world of online Gran Turismo competition to real-life race cars. Many of the participants did go on to race in GT and endurance classes. The movie follows Jann Mardenborough, the 2011 winner, who went on to a class podium at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, although it makes free with what years and in which cars events occurred.
Right off the bat, yes, Gran Turismo does stupid movie motorsports things like have the driver put their foot down mid-straightaway and suddenly have more speed, or send crashing cars skyward in balls of flame, or—a personal peeve—constantly have the drivers glare at each other through the side window as if they aren’t locked in neck restraints and hopefully paying attention to their racing lines. It also compresses years into months, invents people who didn’t exist, and rearranges Mardenborough’s timeline in multiple ways to make for uninterrupted drama. We’re not going to list every instance, because we’d be here all day, but know that if you’re writing a school paper on Mardenborough, Gran Turismo is not a reliable source for your facts.
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Now, if you just want to spend some time in a nice air-conditioned theatre with the sound of racing cars and some pleasant-faced actors to look at, you could do far worse than a ticket for Gran Turismo. Archie Madekwe plays Mardenborough with an earnest sweetness. It’s refreshing to have a racing main character whose primary personality characteristic isn’t aggressive confidence. Madekwe, who grew up in London, not only didn’t have any racing experience going in, but didn’t even have a driver’s license when he accepted the role. “I would get home from this other job I was filming, and take a driving lesson that night. The producers kept on phoning me. ‘Have you passed yet? Have you passed yet?’ and as soon as I did, they sent me a simulator, and then I had to learn to drive in the game too.” The real Mardenborough does much of the on-track stunt driving in the film, but Madekwe is proud to say that all the gaming scenes in the film are his driving.
Stranger Things’ David Harbour Is a Standout
The scene stealer is Stranger Things’ David Harbour, again playing a gruff adoptive father figure. Harbour plays fictional driving coach Jack Salter, who battles his own failures as he attempts to ready Mardenborough to face off against snobs in Porsches and rich, mean boys in golden Lamborghinis. This seems to involve a lot of dropping heavy emotional stuff on Mardenborough as he’s on track, which we would argue is a poor approach to coaching, but their relationship in the movie is the most developed and engaging of the movie.
Some Weak Points
Most of the other characters are supporting at best, the bad guy being a bad guy just because we need one, the girl invented because it’s 2023 so we need one. Two, really: Mardenborough’s fictional love interest is played by Maeve Courtier-Lilley, and his scrappy fellow GT Academy participant will be a familiar face to Corvette racing fans, Emelia Hartford. Both are pleasant; neither is necessary to the story.
One wishes for more detailed character development of either of Mardenborough’s parents, who travel the typical movie arc from lovingly disgusted with his gaming ambitions to supportive once he proves it’s a possible career—or the Nissan marketing executive based on Darren Cox. In the movie he’s reimagined as Danny Moore, played by Orlando Bloom with such bad hair that the real Cox should be offended. Moore’s character bounces between heroic out-of-the-box thinking in coming up with the GT Academy and an intriguing, but never followed up on, moment of villainy when he attempts to rig the academy results in favor of the more polished and more white second-place finisher.
Visually, Gran Turismo is torn between director Neill Blomkamp’s gritty realism and an obvious Sony push for pandering to video-game fans. The occasional game graphics that overlay the action could be funny or expository if they happened more regularly, but as it is, they take the viewer out of the story without adding much but a reminder as to who paid for the movie. Otherwise, the shots are wide and exciting, the cars dice it up with a sense of physicality, and it’s a pleasure to see endurance racing and scenes of contemporary Le Mans on the big screen. Trivia moment: The final Le Mans scenes were shot in Hungary, at the Hungaroring F1 track, which was dressed up to look like France.
The first half of Gran Turismo is slow, so eat your popcorn and take your bathroom breaks then. The second half, which follows Mardenborough’s push to qualify for a license and the 24 Hours of Le Mans, is much more energetic. It may be unrealistic in its superfast leap from gamer chair to GT qualifying, but it’s interesting to see depictions of multiple race losses on screen. These days, when fans bemoan even a momentary slump in a favorite driver’s performance, it’s good to get a reminder that the real world involves a lot of backmarker moments.
The slough of Mardenborough’s despond comes towards the end of the film when a crash at the Nürburgring results in the death of a spectator. This is based on a real event in Mardenborough’s career, although one that happened several years after Le Mans. In interviews, Mardenborough says that including the incident was important to him. “It’s part of my life. It is my life . . . It’s a very dark moment in my career and in my life as a person,” he told the Daily Express. We were surprised to see it depicted, not just because it’s a shocking moment in the story, but because it takes the plot somewhere much darker and sadder than the rest of the movie seems to be leading.
In the end, there’s plenty to hate on in Gran Turismo, if you desire to keep the tradition alive, but there’s also a lot to like, from the unusual hero to the detailed pit boxes and track backgrounds. If nothing else, you’ll come out with a desire for a PlayStation setup, which is likely Sony’s main goal.
Senior Editor, Features
Like a sleeper agent activated late in the game, Elana Scherr didn’t know her calling at a young age. Like many girls, she planned to be a vet-astronaut-artist, and came closest to that last one by attending UCLA art school. She painted images of cars, but did not own one. Elana reluctantly got a driver’s license at age 21 and discovered that she not only loved cars and wanted to drive them, but that other people loved cars and wanted to read about them, which meant somebody had to write about them. Since receiving activation codes, Elana has written for numerous car magazines and websites, covering classics, car culture, technology, motorsports, and new-car reviews.