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'Gran Turismo' Review

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August 25, 2023
Hunter Friesen
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Screenwriters Jason Hall and Zach Baylin make it their main objective to never let you forget that Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe) is an underdog that no one believes in. “This isn’t a game, this is real life,” “You’re just a gamer, what do you know about driving cars?” “This time there isn’t a reset button,” are just a handful of lines that you'll become increasingly tired of hearing. It seems Hall and Baylin never took the lesson on diminishing returns, as all the suspense surrounding Jann’s outcome is completely evaporated by the fifth scene where someone tells him he can’t accomplish his dream.

To cut them some slack, this is based on a true story, a fact that the producers REALLY want you to know, going so far as to rename the movie Gran Turismo: Based on a True Story in some markets. Mardenborough is a real person who became obsessed with racing at a young age. But he didn’t have a similar upbringing to the other drivers on the professional circuit, filled with fame and easy access to the best cars money can buy. Jann’s window into the racing world was through the PlayStation game “Gran Turismo” (don’t call it a game in front of Jann because it’s a “racing simulation”). The opening scene (or commercial if you want to be more accurate) introduces us to the immense detail and precision that went into making the game as realistic as possible. Unlike other gaming series like “FIFA” and “Madden,” “Gran Turismo” is generally accepted as the most authentic portrayal of the sport it represents.

No one seems to believe that Jann’s world-class gaming abilities can translate into real racing, least of all his former soccer pro dad (Djimon Hounsou). Nissan marketing executive Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom) sees potential in the kid. If Jann can be made into a serious racer, it will make Nissan one of the most popular car companies among the untapped gaming demographic. Put in charge of the training process is Jack Salter (David Harbour), who’s also a non-believer in “sim racers.” Over time his cold heart begins to thaw, with Jann proving himself to be just as good as he says he is.

Upon the announcement, one would think that former wunderkind Neill Blomkamp is serving his time in director jail with this assignment. There are no signs of that here, fortunately, with the District 9 and Elysium director crafting some stunning racing sequences, even if there are so many that they end up blurring together. The roaring of the engines fills the theater corner to corner, and cinematographer Jacques Jouffret captures some decent shots. It’s old-fashioned studio craftsmanship applied to a sport that values tradition.

Even with all the underdog cliches I mentioned earlier, there’s still a strong emotional connection to Jann and Jack’s partnership. Madekwe and Harbour have great chemistry as they play to the tune of “young upstart and grizzled veteran” we’ve heard many times before. But it’s been done so many times because it works, and it works here. The lows are bitter and the highs are sweet.

Gran Turismo is a product of brand synergy, meant to push the overall awareness of a product just as much as it's supposed to tell a cinematic story. It’s part of a worrying trend of corporations taking on the role of their own biggest fan (see Tetris and Flamin’ Hot). But there’s also stuff like Air and Barbie that can make the most out of propaganda and entertainment. Blomkamp’s film doesn’t reach those heights, but it still does just enough to cross the finish line in a respectable fashion.

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