‘Gran Turismo’ Turns a True-Life Tale Into a Breakneck Gamer Fantasy

In the glossy trailers and ads, the premise of “Gran Turismo” seems absurd and designed to attract an audience full of gamers. Then its appeal grows when it turns out director Neill Blomkamp is not fibbing and this is actually based on a true story. For viewers out of the video game world loop, Jann Mardenborough did indeed get so adept at a race car simulator (“sim racing”) that he made it into the GT Academy competition. He then went on to become an actual race car driver. By dramatizing how all this came about, Blomkamp has made an entertaining movie that, without its premise, would have been just another run around the track. 

Archie Madekwe plays Jann, who lives in 2010s England with his once promising soccer athlete dad, Steve (Djimon Hounsou) and very supportive mom, Lesley (Geri Horner), as well as brother Coby (Daniel Puig). Steve mocks how Jann spends so many hours in the Gran Turismo simulator designed by Kazunori Yamauchi (Takehiro Hira) to recreate in minute detail the world of race car driving. It’s so realistic that marketing guru Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom) comes up with the ultimate concept: GT can hold a competition where the seven best players will then be sent to a training academy to see who can cut it to join the Nissan team. Jann jumps on the chance and makes it into the crop of fellow players entering the GT Academy. Reluctantly agreeing to train them is former driver Jack Salter (David Harbour). It’s no longer a console but a real track where these young prospects have to prove how good they actually are at the wheel.

As far as biopics go, “Gran Turismo” feels more like a popcorn entertainment with a feel-good spirit. For Blomkamp it’s a change of gears after mostly doing sci-fi. He became a sensation in 2009 with “District 9,” a great film nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, where the arrival of extraterrestrials becomes a powerful allegory for immigration, apartheid and discrimination. His follow ups, “Elysium” and “Chappie” received colder responses and a 2021 demon possession thriller, “Demonic,” has largely been forgotten. Sometimes it’s good to return to the basics and in some ways “Gran Turismo” makes sense for this director. The premise has its own form of futurism with the idea of a simulator basically training Jann for becoming a real racer. A clear subtext is how such technology is becoming ever more linked to real life, even the living out of fantasies, and of course, war.

Like the cars that dominate the plot, “Gran Turismo” goes so fast that it misses a few key questions and details. We never get to really experience how Jann and his co-drivers, including a cocky American, Matty (Darren Barnet), felt on that first day when they had to get into a real race car. Jack’s expected voice overs spout lots of intriguing information about the g-forces involved in racing, but the speedy montages cut straight to everyone already speeding down a race track and building rivalries. It sounds like this would be the equivalent of a homebody suddenly being recruited into Top Gun, yet we’re missing the finer details of how Jann adapted to such a situation. He does a lot of treadmill, which apparently is enough. Room had to be made in the script for a love interest. Here it’s Audrey (Maeve Courtier-Lilley), a girl from back home Jann meets at a party and then follows on Instagram. 

Despite these narrative slips, Blomkamp’s movie remains compulsively watchable. It may not have the gravitas of Ron Howard’s “Rush,” but it can be as fun as Tony Scott’s “Days of Thunder” with the way it builds suspense over Jann going pro and facing real athletes at international races. There’s the key dramatic component that Jann is a total outsider in this world facing immense pressure. Jack warns him that everyone from the seasoned drivers to his own pit crew will be dismissive, even hateful. Danny Moore needs the kid to prove he’s not an idiot wasting GT’s money and prestige. At the various tracks, ranging from Dubai to France, Blomkamp shoots some exciting sequences with the added touch of gaming icons and graphics connecting the experience to Jann’s simulator days. The force of a sports car going full throttle comes across as larger races, culminating in one packing rain, thunder and exhaustion.

Much of “Gran Turismo” turns into a traditional sports movie by the third act, with close calls, a tragedy and teary phone calls between Jann and his family. David Harbour has one or two genuinely moving scenes as the veteran driver who harbors battle scars. For a villain Blomkamp finds Josha Stradowski to play Nicholas Capa, who does what he must and stabs at Jann’s confidence, or walks in slow motion into a golden car outside of a fancy hotel. Because Blomkamp never brings down the energy level it’s far from boring. Since most of it is true, the movie also sustains a decent amount of fascination that might send you racing to Google after the end credits. You might also feel compelled to play Enya’s “Orinoco Flow (Sail Away),” which doesn’t just appear on the soundtrack for nostalgia. We learn it’s still Jann’s music of choice to relax before a race. After reaching the finish line, Blomkamp doesn’t reinvent the wheel with “Gran Turismo,” but proves he can still engage and leave us wondering what the next lap will bring.

Gran Turismo” releases Aug. 25 in theaters nationwide.