Gran Turismo Is Arguably One of the Best Sports Movies Ever

Gran Turismo is the unbelievable tale of a gamer who became a professional racer and it’s surprisingly good.
IMAGE Columbia Pictures

You’d be forgiven for thinking Gran Turismo is just some Hollywood fantasy, another fictional story to promote one of the Playstation’s most popular titles. You’d actually be half-right. The truth is, the film is a 134-minute commercial for Sony’s gaming console and its best-selling driving simulator (don’t call it a video game!). If you don’t already have one, you’re almost guaranteed to want one when you walk out of the cinema. It’s a shameless hard sell of Gran Turismo complete with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from creator Kazunori Yamauchi. The film makes sure to let audiences know how accurate and precise it recreates race tracks and simulates the whole driving experience.

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But the plot twist is that it’s actually a true story — albeit with a liberal reordering and dramatization of events — that happens to be one of the best films of the year. Directed by Neill Blomkamp, Gran Turismo is the unbelievable tale of a gamer who became a professional racer and it’s surprisingly good. And it’s good not just in a video game movie sort of way, which isn’t a very high bar to clear, or even in terms of racing films, of which there aren’t a lot. No, Gran Turismo is straight-up excellent. It’s flat-out entertaining, inspiring, and yes, also highly effective as a sales pitch.

Photo by Columbia Pictures.

Gran Turismo only tangentially counts as a video game movie as it’s basically a biopic that’s structured like a sports movie. Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe), a Welsh teen who spends all his free time playing Gran Turismo, dreams of becoming a professional racer but his father (Djimon Hounsou), a former professional footballer, wants to spare his son the heartache of broken dreams and advises him to look for a proper job. It isn’t an unreasonable ask, either. As a former athlete, the elder Mardenborough is intimately familiar with how much hard work it takes to break into the pro leagues. And spending countless hours playing video games, or rather, a racing simulator, in front of a monitor probably doesn’t compute as hard work. Just ask any parent.

Enter Nissan marketing executive Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom), who pitches the idea of forming a racing academy that takes the best Gran Turismo players in the world and turn them into a real racing team for Nissan. It sounds like a harebrained idea from a Hollywood movie, but it really did happen. In 2008, Nissan Europe marketing executive Darren Cox convinced Nissan to form the GT Academy as a marketing and PR stunt intended to convince young gamers — who would eventually be car buyers — to look favorably upon Nissan.

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The GT Academy ran from 2008 to 2016, and in 2015 Filipino Jose Gerard Policarpio became the first-ever GT Academy Asia Champion. The program produced several professional racers, many of whom have gained recognition in the sport. Contrary to the events in the film, Mardenborough wasn’t actually the first to win it but the third gamer to take top spot in 2011. But Gran Turismo is less concerned about historical accuracy than it is about dramatizing Mardenborough’s journey. Never mind that the actual true story is already pretty good. Heck, apologies to Archie Madekwe, but the real life Jann Mardenborough is even more handsome and is a marketing and PR wet dream.

Photo by Columbia Pictures.

The film’s version of Jann is a boyish, socially awkward teen who needs to be coaxed out of his shell. This gives pause to Moore, who prefers to field Mardenborough’s closest rival, the more camera-ready (and notably entirely fictional) Matty Davis from the USA. Darren Barnet, known to Netflix viewers as Paxton Hall-Yoshida from Never Have I Ever, breathes life and swagger to Davis, helping push Jann to become the best driver he can be. The truth is, the film could’ve ended with Mardenborough winning the GT Academy and it would’ve been satisfying. But the story keeps going for another hour or so because it turns out that Jann goes on to achieve more exciting, biopic-worthy things.


But there’s one incident in Mardenborough’s life that is portrayed in an arguably distasteful manner. In 2015, Jann had a freak accident in Nürburgring where his car careened over the fence and into spectators, killing one, while leaving him mostly unharmed. The event actually happens after the film’s climactic final race, but screenwriters Jason Hall and Zach Baylin move the event earlier chronologically to create a crisis of confidence for Jann. Narratively, it works. The scenes deliver the Gran Turismo’s most tense and heart stopping moments and the film is better for it. But reframing the tragedy as a motivational plot device is something of a disservice to the victim.

Gran Turismo is marketed as a true story, and in large part it is. But like any great biopic, it’s also laced with some calculated fiction, such as Mardenborough’s teammates at Nissan and most importantly his mentor, Jack Salter (David Harbour), who doesn’t exist. Salter plays the Mr. Miyagi to Jann’s Daniel-san, the Obi Wan to his Luke, the tired but effective washed up old mentor trope whom the real Mardenborough implies is amalgamated from several figures who’ve served as his mentors throughout his career. Who cares if it’s probably all bollocks, it’s excellent cinema. Harbour is delightful to watch, whether he plays Die Hard Santa or Millie Bobby Brown’s dad and his Jack Salter is actually Gran Turismo’s heart.

Blomkamp manages to make shameless marketing palatable with compelling sports drama, interweaving cool computer graphics with visceral automotive action. He infuses it with so much tension, excitement, and real, life-threatening stakes that Gran Turismo is arguably one of the best sports movies ever. Jann Mardenborough’s life story is pretty remarkable, for sure, but the Hollywood version is even better.

Gran Turismo is now showing in cinemas nationwide.

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Hugo Zacarias Yonzon IV
Zach Yonzon is a cake artist and co-owner of Bunny Baker
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