Get revved up for "Gran Turismo," the summer's suspenseful thrill ride based on a true story

Starring David Harbour and Archie Madekwe, the gamer-turned-racer action flick is a nail-biting pleasure

Published August 24, 2023 3:00PM (EDT)

Archie Madekwe in "Gran Turismo" (Columbia Pictures)
Archie Madekwe in "Gran Turismo" (Columbia Pictures)

"Gran Turismo: Based on a True Story" provides arguably the most exhilarating rush of the summer. This feel-good drama, based on a true story, chronicles the experiences of Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe), a young gamer who becomes a force to be reckoned with on the professional racetrack circuit. (The real Jann Mardenborough actually drove in the film's racing scenes.) And if that is not rousing enough, the film includes what may be the greatest use of Kenny G in any film, ever. 

There is an undeniable thrill and incredible suspense during the racing scenes in "Gran Turismo."

Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom) is a Nissan marketer who comes up with the crazy idea that they should have a contest to find the best/fastest "Gran Turismo" gamer (aka "sim" driver) to compete on the racetrack in real life. Since the video game is the accurate simulation of racing, how about putting the proverbial rubber to the road? Danny's idea "to reignite the dream to drive" is met with both interest and skepticism. There is no reset button on the course, and not only can a driver be killed, but they can also kill others as well. Danny, however, thinks with the right chief engineer, a gamer can be trained to perform well on the course — and even win. 

However, Danny struggles to find someone to help him, eventually asking Jack Salter (David Harbour), a former driver who laughs at the idea before he decides to accept it. Upon meeting the 10 candidates who qualify in a contest, Jack's version of a pep talk is that he is there to prove they can't do it. He is tough and gruff and committed to breaking these gamers. Harbour leans into the role with relish; Jack takes his work seriously, and, as such, the film does, too. 

Jann gets accepted into the academy, but he crashes his car with Jack inside, which may lead to his expulsion. Instead, he proves himself worthy when he rightly insists his brakes were glazed. (For non-racers, this is when the temperature exceeds the brake pad limits.) This, along with some fancy driving, helps the gamer and his coach develop a kind of mutual respect. Their relationship is very father/son like, which is good, as Jann has some issues with his own father, (Djimon Hounsou), who wants Jann to stop eating, sleeping and gaming, and instead get a real job. But Jann has wanted to race since he was 5, and until this unprecedented opportunity, he has had to channel his passion through the game. Jack recognizes that whereas Jann's father resists it.

Director Neill Blomkamp ("District 9") uses video game visuals to tell this story, without oversteering, as he shifts from the simulated world to the real world. There are icons that help show Jann's place in his various races, and there are moments that show how he applies some of his innate skills at the game to his efforts on a course, like "finding the line" to pull ahead of his competitors in a crucial race. (Though PlayStation is a producer, the film is less a commercial for the video game than it is a 135-minute commercial for Sony and Nissan). 

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Jack counsels Jann that other drivers, such as the handsome hotshot Nicholas Capa (Josha Stradowski), will look down on "sim" drivers. This is the film's elegant way of depicting the kind of discrimination that Jann experiences as a biracial, working-class, non-professional driver in an exclusive sport. Jack even tells Jann, "No one thinks we can do this," before a big race, emphasizing the low expectation folks have for him. It encourages him to prove he belongs. (The film's subtext is all about belonging.) And this is precisely why Jann's efforts to get his FIA license — which requires him to finish in no less than 4th place in a qualifying race — are so exciting and gratifying. 

Thoughtful moments provide "Gran Turismo" with a beating heart under its revving engine.

Even if viewers know the facts of the story, there is an undeniable thrill and incredible suspense during the racing scenes in "Gran Turismo." The races are electrifying and intense and as the sound revs louder and the images move faster; it is impossible not to get caught up in the action and white-knuckle it rooting for Jann to place in a race. Blomkamp creates a "you-are-there" feeling at times, and the speed is severe. One of the nicest touches has the gamers getting in an actual car and banging against the headrest as they accelerate — something that doesn't happen at a computer monitor. And scenes depict Jann feeling the immense G force as he drives. A scene that features a stunning crash is sure to elicit gasps from viewers. 

Gran TurismoDavid Harbour in "Gran Turismo" (Columbia Pictures)

Blomkamp digs into the emotions when Jann has a setback, but this narrative pit stop does not feel corny or contrived. Jann works through his emotions about racing with the wisdom and support of Jack, and he finds some comfort from his girlfriend, Audrey (Maeve Courtier-Lilley). Meanwhile, he stalls in dealing with his father. These scenes make Jann three-dimensional and allow him the opportunity to process all he has achieved — and all he still hopes to do — as he is faced with a tough situation and difficult decisions. And these thoughtful moments provide "Gran Turismo" with a beating heart under its revving engine. A tearful exchange between father and son late in the film is quite touching, in part because Hounsou, a consummate actor, just sells his heartfelt speech.

Archie Madekwe is ingratiating as Jann, capturing his anxiety as well as his enthusiasm. He is more modest than cocky, which makes him sympathetic (if possibly saintly). In contrast, Orlando Bloom is a bit aggressive as Danny, which renders him unlikable, but he does not have much to do here. The film's real secret weapon is David Harbour, who wonderfully underplays it as Jann's guide and advisor. Whether he is in Jann's ear on the course, recounting his own experience at Le Mans, or describing the feeling that racing gives him, Jack provides a strong sense of control and precision, and he keeps the film grounded.   

Mardenborough's story is remarkable, and it is extremely well told here. Even viewers who don't like video games will want to break out the champagne for "Gran Turismo." The film is a winner.

"Gran Turismo: Based on a True Story" opens nationwide Aug. 25.


By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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