This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.
Gran Turismo has been a fan-favorite video game franchise for over two decades. Now on its seventh iteration, the attention to detail and accurate physics within the series created by Kazunori Yamauchi has made “The Real Driving Simulator” subtitle feel well-earned. The ability to translate popular Playstation video games on-screen has been evident this year through the success of HBO’s critically acclaimed adaptation of The Last of Us. Now, Sony’s Playstation Productions and director Neill Blomkamp (District 9, Elysium) look to give Gran Turismo a wider audience beyond gamers with a feature film adaptation. From the outset, 2023’s Gran Turismo ensures the audience that this story is not a fantasy based on the potential of the game, it is a reality.
Written by Jason Hall and Zach Bayli, the movie begins with the establishment of the GT Academy program, a concept conceived by Nissan executive Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom) and his vision of turning gamers into actual racers. Bringing together some of the Gran Turismo’s strongest players, the GT Academy is designed to put these special individuals through a series of exercises, tests, and races to see who really has what it takes to pursue one of the world’s most dangerous sports professionally. One of the lucky contestants is Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe), a teenager from Cardiff who was never quite able to bring his passion for racing into actuality before receiving this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to prove his abilities despite not even having a driver’s license.
After overcoming banal scenes between Jann and his family that lack chemistry and feel extremely stereotypical, like with his father Steve (Djimon Hounsou), the real story finally begins. At the grounds of the GT Academy is where Jann meets the people who stand in the way of achieving his wildest dreams, including rival racer Matty Davis (Darren Barnet). This is where the filmmakers truly find their footing. For those not well acquainted with the sport and the vigorous training involved, Gran Turismo (2023) is triumphant in diving deep into what makes racing both physically and psychologically demanding. The racing sequences themselves are quite exhilarating, cinematographer Jacques Jouffret, known for The Purge franchise, at times mimics how spectators watch the sport regularly by using bird’s eye footage and other various camera techniques.
When the plot stays focused on Jann and his journey toward achieving the unthinkable, Gran Turismo (2023) flourishes. However, the film often struggles when incorporating several subplots that tediously detract from the core narrative and relives the all-important tension needed to keep you on the edge of your seat. On multiple occasions, the script also attempts to inject a love story but fails to find any relevant use for it. As a result, we are left with a half-baked romance that adds nothing to Jann’s character arc or the stakes at hand. The biggest flaw of Gran Turismo (2023), though, is the frequently vapid dialogue which sounds artificial. Frustratingly, this affects the overall quality and effect of the movie by taking the audience out of what should be some of the most emotionally impacting moments.
Archie Madekwe (Midsommar, Apple TV’s See) does an adequate job of carrying Gran Turismo (2023) on his shoulders and undeniably shines in Jann’s more vulnerable moments. However, even he can’t escape the film’s slothful writing from time to time. Orlando Bloom as Danny Moore, the Nissan exec based on real-life GT Academy founder Darren Cox, is integral to the first act but becomes increasingly redundant as the story progresses. His role eventually feels like an afterthought which is rather disappointing given Bloom’s charming screen presence.
Yet, from the second he first appears on screen, David Harbour of Stranger Things and MCU fame becomes the beating heart of the film as Jack Salter, a retired racer who quits his engineering gig with another team to become the reluctant Chief Engineer at the GT Academy. Following Jann’s successful transition from sitting behind a mechanical wheel to being on the track, Salter becomes his trainer and primary support system during the early days of his racing career. Harbour possesses an infatuating enthusiasm that gives this rags-to-riches story the kind of energy it needs.
It’s no secret that audiences have a soft spot for the underdog. Especially in biographical sports stories such as Cool Runnings and Eddie The Eagle, the feel-good factor and thrill of seeing ordinary people do extraordinary things is irresistible. Even though Gran Turismo (2023) struggles with sticking to its strengths and maintaining efficient pacing, it still does an adequate job of championing a modern globe-trotting underdog tale. Sony’s latest big-screen video game feature proudly celebrates the uniqueness of Jann Mardenbourough’s true story and his immense success, and that alone makes for a solid viewing experience.