Gran Turismo movie review: There's heart in this gamer-to-racer film

Don't call it a video game adaptation

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Film adaptations of video games are notoriously difficult to bring to the screen but even the makers of the dreadful Bob Hoskins-fronted Super Mario Bros. of 1993 had protagonists that can talk; if your leads comprise road and racing cars, as is the case with the Gran Turismo series for the Sony PlayStation, the prospect isn’t altogether attractive.

Fortunately, Gran Turismo is not a film about a video game at all, it’s one that uses Polyphony Digital’s creation as a MacGuffin to explore themes including courage, love, loss, following your dreams and triumph in the face of adversity.

It does so by focusing instead on GT Academy, a competition devised by a Nissan marketing man that aimed to find gamers who could be trained up in real racing cars to take on the world’s best drivers in the world’s most famous races.

And gamers (plural) it was, because although the movie suggests GT Academy was an incredible one-off — and that was the original plan — it in fact became such a success that the scheme ran for eight years, from 2008 to 2016, with regional competitions around the world. In total, 22 winners were selected to join Nissan’s global racing programme.

The film largely ignores all that and focuses on one year, and one man: Briton’s Jann Mardenborough, who (and this isn’t really a spoiler, as the competition forms just the first half of the film) won the European GT Academy in 2011. You have to feel for Spaniard Lucas Ordóñez, who was the star of the inaugural competition.

But Mardenborough’s story is undoubtedly compelling. The son of an English professional footballer (although in the lower leagues), Jann dreamt not of a career on the pitch but one behind the wheel, and got a shot at achieving it thanks to Nissan’s gamer-to-racer programme. 

The film tells us that the kids who took part are “outsiders”; racing game enthusiasts who would never have had the opportunity or vast resources required to race for real without this virtual leg-up; young men and women who are seen as oddballs by society and, in the case of Mardenborough at least, their parents.

In the film, the man who spots this untapped potential is Danny Moore, played by Orlando Bloom (The Lord of the Rings), though in real life the marketing brain behind GT Academy was Darren Cox, who rose to become Nissan’s Global Head of Motorsport as a result of GT Academy’s success. 

Orlando Bloom in Gran Turismo movie

Cox is no longer with Nissan but the show notes reveal he was a producer on the film (alongside Mardenborough), and so while the character of Moore could easily have been turned into a money-driven corporate villain with no regard for the youngsters involved in his scheme, he is portrayed as a driven but ultimately caring figure. The bad guys become Mardenborough’s on-tracks rivals, as does fear: of failure; of crashing; of hurting others along the road to wish fulfillment.

Moore’s motivation, of course, is to try to bring global attention to Nissan’s road cars through a unique motorsport programme, though the character also astutely observes that, “Most car buyers don’t dream of the open road; this game is an untapped audience.” In other words, get through to the young gamers and they could be Nissan buyers of the future.

The documentary-style opening notes that “the following is based on a true story” and shows the games being developed, which grounds the film in reality from the off. We then meet Mardenborough, played by Archie Madekwe (Midsommar), in his bedroom where he’s unpacking a new steering wheel for his Playstation gaming rig. 

Almost immediately we’re introduced to a running theme of the film – a tension between Jann and his father, played by Djimon Hounsou (Amistad; Gladiator), who can’t understand why his son spends all his time in front of a screen rather than out kicking a ball around, and has a hard time supporting him with this obsession.

In real life, Mardenborough was supported by both his parents in his gaming and was also pretty good at football, but that’s not the impression the movie conveys. It’s a dichotomy with which the real Jann is clearly at peace, as he was heavily involved in the film from even before the script was written, and acted as a stunt driver as well as producer, meaning he was on set virtually every day.

Other divergences from reality reveal themselves during the Gran Turismo movie. Race fans will recognise that certain locations aren’t accurate, including shots supposedly of Silverstone clearly not being Silverstone (at least in the early cut shown to And when Mardenborough comes up against racing rivals they’re caricatures, manufactured for the movie and as hyperreal as the Gran Turismo video games themselves.

The primary antagonists for the second part of the movie are the Capa Racing Team and in particular its entitled and aggressive star driver, Nicholas Capa, played by Josha Stradowski (The Wheel of Time).

But Mardenborough finds himself up against almost everyone, including his own team, who take a surprisingly long time to accept that a gamer is somehow piloting one of their cars for real. “No-one wants you there,” it is explained to him, and after one disastrous on-track outing a mechanic shouts through the window, “Much easier with a joystick, isn’t it?”

Helping the embattled Mardenborough navigate this hostile and unfamiliar world is David Harbour (Stranger Things) as Jack Salter, a washed-up ex-racer (is there any other kind in the movie world?) and team boss who was Moore’s last choice as lead trainer in the GT Academy programme, and becomes Mardenborough’s mentor out in the real world.

It’s a prickly relationship at first, with the GT Academy process acting like a military bootcamp — the egos have to be broken down before they can be reshaped as efficient driving machines. But it evolves as the two characters learn to respect and trust one another. In fact, Salter begins to fill the gap left by the young driver’s less-than-supportive father.

And it’s the two father-son relationships that are the heart of Gran Turismo — Mardenborough with Salter as two fish out of water, fighting for credibility against a tide of opposition in the racing world, and with his dad, who must come to terms with the fact that Jann wants to pursue a path that he finds alien.

Gran Turismo movie

And though all the actors put in solid performances, including former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell Horner, who it turns out has a likeably naturalistic style, it’s Djimon Hounsou who is the standout — one of his scenes in particular will have fathers around the world pretending something got stuck in their eye.

And perhaps the bravest and most surprising inclusion is an accident at the Nürburgring in which a spectator is killed. This happened in real life, and it shows the mettle of the man that Mardenborough wanted to include it in the movie — it must have been a difficult moment to relive during filming, and tricky to see played out on the big screen. In an interview after the screening Mardenborough told me it had to be included as it is part of his life — part of his story.

Director Neill Blomkamp (District 9; Chappie) shows particular skill in bringing such a sensitive matter to the screen, with a highly-charged reaction from Madekwe and a smartly-played scene from Harbour in which Salter tries to convince him to get back in the racing seat. 

Verdict: Gran Turismo movie review

The realism of the racing elements will jar for true petrolheads but Gran Turismo clips most of the apexes. It’s very obviously a marketing movie at times, with big money behind it from Nissan and Sony, but there is real heart within the true story and the stellar cast (Halliwell Horner included) help suspend disbelief.

And although certain liberties are taken with the truth, it’s all in the aid of delivering a thrill ride (which of course it should be), and there’s a surprisingly emotional, accomplished movie in there. Gran Turismo may not be a masterpiece but it’s a worthy addition to the motorsport movie genre.

12A, 134min
In cinemas from August 9, 2023

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