The Gran Turismo Movie Is Part Cringey Playstation Commercial, Part Endearing Underdog Story

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Jann Mardenborough's GT-R Nismo catches some unfortunate air during a race in Germany.

Gran Turismo has to be one of the unlikeliest games yet to get the big-screen treatment. Sony’s long-running racing sim series features no cinematic story, no characters, no heated raceway rivalries. It’s all about racing and tinkering with gorgeous cars at some of the world’s most famous and beautiful tracks. But despite not telling a story of their own, the games have played a part in a real-life tale of racing greatness, and it’s this story that’s now gracing movie screens around the world. Surprisingly, the film that emerged from these circumstances is an endearing, if sometimes cringey, underdog story.

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Directed by Neill Blomkamp (District 9, Elysium) and written by Jason Hall (American Sniper) and Zach Baylin (Creed III), Gran Turismo is a biopic action sports drama about Jann Mardenborough (Midsommar’s Archie Madekwe). Jann’s a damn good gamer, proficient enough to beat everyone he plays against in Polyphony Digital’s racing sim of the same name. He’s also directionless, living only for the thrill of the race without a solid backup plan—according to his parents Lesley (Geri Halliwell) and Steve Mardenborough (Djimon Hounsou), anyway. But racing is all Jann has wanted to do since his dad took a picture of him in front of a vintage red race car when he was just five years old. And so, while toiling his life away at a Wales retail store, Jann invests all his money and time into setting up and understanding GT cars in PlayStation’s racing game in the hopes that one day, he’d get to go fast on a real race track.

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Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe) plays Gran Turismo in his room as a CG car slowly envelops him.

It doesn’t take long for the film to move Jann from the dull trappings of his UK home to the exhilarating speedway of the racing circuit. After he and his brother Coby (Daniel Puig) sneak his dad’s car to a lowkey night party, and then dodge cops as very Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit “cops evaded” overlays appear onscreen, Jann learns he qualified for the GT Academy, a now-defunct training seminar pitched to Nissan by marketing executive Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom) to turn Gran Turismo gamers into professional racers. After winning the qualifying race at a gamer cafe, Jann finds himself standing on the asphalt next to nine other gamers as trainer Jack Salter (Stranger Things’ David Harbour) berates them about how they’re not ready, can never be ready, and will never be ready because “this isn’t a game.” This is the drama at the heart of the film: gamers can’t prepare for the real world because video games aren’t real.

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What follows is a rather touching if cheugy film about an outsider who, in spite of trials and tribulations, proves that he belongs among the best of the best. And it’s in telling this tale of personal triumph that Gran Turismo shines brightest. Strip away the endearing underdog story, and you’re left with a long PlayStation commercial.

I’m serious. PlayStation is all over the place here. The company’s logo is on helmets and suits; the console’s startup sound starts the film; Jann gifts Jack a Sony MP3 player during a heartwarming scene towards the end; hell, they even visit PlayStation studio Polyphony Digital to see Gran Turismo creator Kazunori Yamauchi (played here by actor Takehiro Hira, while the real Kazunori Yamauchi makes a cameo as a sushi chef). All of this makes sense considering the film is funded and produced by Sony, but if you had no idea what Gran Turismo was, you would think you were watching a 134-minute PlayStation advertisement.

Simply acknowledging the tale’s PlayStation roots isn’t a bad thing. However, the copious product placement is jarring at times, particularly during sequences that carry heavy emotional weight. Take that scene between Jann and Jack. Coming during a pivotal moment in both characters’ arcs, the moving instance is washed away by barefaced cynicism as a Sony Walkman takes up the center frame for a moment, reminding you that the company is behind the whole film. I get it. Corporate sponsors are owed their dues, but stuff like this is immersion-breaking.

Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe) and several other GT Academy racers participate in a training session.

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Thankfully, the cinematography is goated, providing an experience that pulls you to the edge of your seat with each race. Shot by French cinematographer Jacques Jouffret (the first three Purge films), Gran Turismo is exquisite to look at, filled with steady and shaky shots that not only enhance the moment but also add to the film’s storytelling.

One effective technique the film employs is a behind-the-car overhead view used when Jann is swerving around the police or taking risky passes during races, which makes you feel like you’re both in a helicopter getting a bird’s-eye view and playing Gran Turismo itself, switching between various camera angles to get the best look at the intense action. It can all sometimes be a bit artificially glitzy as everything is color-corrected to look as perfect as possible. However, couple the professionalism of the cinematography with the smart use of CGI—like one instance when a car breaks apart in the middle of a race to reveal its inner workings as Jann pushes the grounded spaceship to the max—and you get one helluva of a watchable movie, one that’s routinely visually inventive and stunning to behold.

The narrative also adds to Gran Turismo’s watchability. It briskly whips through a true story about the IRL Jann Mardenborough (who served as co-producer and stunt double) as he charts his career from avid gamer to pro racer. IRL Jann has been playing the racing sim since at least 1999, eventually turning his passion for the game into a full-fledged racing career, something I’m sure many gamers—myself included—have dreamt of doing at some point in their lives. At each and every turn, movie Jann is told that gamers never prosper, that noobs can’t be racers, that joysticks don’t compare to racing sticks. He’s constantly derided for being a gamer, an outsider, someone who couldn’t possibly have what it takes because Gran Turismo is “just a video game.”

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Following a handful of accidents involving Jann and other gamers-turned-racers, there’s even an investigation launched into whether “sim racers”—a derogatory term used to describe folks who come from the GT Academy—should be allowed on the track. But through all that belittling, Jann persists anyway, determined to show everyone—his pit crew, Jack, his family—that he can race with the big cars. And he does! There are plenty of losses here and there, and one particularly harrowing crash, but through it all, Jann finds victory and triumph as well—all because he dedicated a lot of energy and time into mastering the racing sim. It’s beautiful. The underdog story about someone who doesn’t belong resonated so strongly with me, even moving me to tears on multiple occasions.

The story isn’t without its faults, though. Some aspects, like the relationship between Jann and girlfriend Audrey (Maeve Courtier-Lilley) or his friendship and rivalry with fellow racer Matty Davis (Darren Barnet), move so fast that they don’t feel totally believable. There’s also the terrifying crash at the Nürburgring in Germany that actually took place two years after the film’s final 24 Hours of LeMans circuit. It’s not a particularly terrible sequence, it’s even an engaging one that stays accurate to the tragic real-life incident, but framing it as a motivating factor to Jann’s story, when it actually takes place after the film’s last race, feels disingenuous and insensitive. However, Gran Turismo’s (largely) inoffensive and endearing story makes up for the handful of misses in the script’s writing.

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Read More: Gran Turismo Movie Slammed For Fumbling A Tragic Real-Life Death

And that’s what left me pleasantly surprised. It may be inspired by a game that has absolutely zero storytelling, one that primarily serves as a glossy car brochure, but Gran Turismo has a beating heart under the hood. It’s a little cringey at times, but it all makes for an incredibly heartwarming film about cars that go really fast.

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