‘Gran Turismo’ Really Wants You to Know That Sim Racers Have It Rough

As both a film about motorsport and a video game adaptation, 'Gran Turismo' had the odds against it from the very start.
Sony Pictures

When the pandemic hit three years ago, many of the world’s top racers who were suddenly unable to compete in the real world turned to simulators. It was a surreal time for those of us who enjoy driving virtually. iRacing was broadcast as a stand-in for NASCAR events. Seemingly every other day, an amusing clip of Lando Norris, Charles Leclerc, and Max Verstappen messing around in Euro Truck Simulator materialized on social media. It wasn’t just for laughs, either; there’s a reason why that rumor about Verstappen having a dedicated racing rig on his private jet surfaced in the first place. When the two-time Formula 1 champ’s not beating people in a real car, it’s reasonable to guess he’s doing it over the internet.

Knowing this, it’s a little difficult to buy into the indignation that Gran Turismo relies on from beginning to end: that these games are seen as toys, and the people who are especially good at them are fooling themselves for dreaming of a shot at the real article.

Of all the video game adaptations that have reached cinemas in recent years, this one’s arguably the furthest from fiction. As you likely well know by now, the movie is based on the true story of now-established racing driver Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe). In 2011, then-20-year-old Mardenborough won Nissan GT Academy, a competition that sought to prepare the best Gran Turismo players in the world for actual motorsport. The victory kickstarted his racing career with a seat in a GT3-class Nissan GT-R at the Dubai 24 Hours in 2012. Since then, Mardenborough has competed in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and various other endurance races, and also served a prolonged stint in Japan’s Super GT series. It’s worth pointing out, as our friends at GTPlanet have, that Mardenborough was not the first GT Academy product to go pro, nor stand on the podium at Le Mans. Lucas Ordóñez actually accomplished both feats years earlier.

Nevertheless, Mardenborough’s tale is the very basis for Gran Turismo, though of course it’s still treated to a healthy dose of creative license. When all of this actually went down, Gran Turismo 5 had only been out a year for PlayStation 3. But here, within minutes of the start, we see Mardenborough excitedly unboxing a GT-branded Fanatec direct-drive wheel to plug into his PlayStation 5, where Gran Turismo 7 is running. Tie-ins with products that people can run out and buy immediately after the credits roll? Check.

This was always going to be a two-hour, 15-minute commercial for The Real Driving Simulator, but I honestly didn’t expect to see so much of the actual game in this movie, nor did I expect so much praise of it from various characters in the film. That’s probably on me, though, and regardless, none of that is why the movie is a letdown. What I’d really hoped was that this unconventional sports story might be told in a suitably unconventional way. I can tell you it’s best to temper those expectations going in.

See, nobody thinks Mardenborough can do anything, which is obviously key to any athlete’s dramatized biography. Not Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom), a fictional characterization of Nissan marketing executive Darren Cox, who’s mostly interested in the optics of the stunt and finding the one nerd with on-camera charm among the pool of recruits. Not Jack Salter (David Harbour), the grizzled fallen competitor-turned-chief engineer who has the most predictable character arc in the entire movie; though, to Salter’s credit, that doesn’t make him any less fun to watch. You came to see David Harbour yell at teenagers some more, after all, and that’s exactly what you’re going to get. It’s easily the most entertaining thing about this experience. Well, that and the cameo from real-life Gran Turismo creator Kazunori Yamauchi himself. No way I’m spoiling that. (Do note that more significant spoilers follow from here on out, though.)

But it’s the hate from Mardenborough’s own crew and rivals when he reaches the big stage that feels the flimsiest. The primary antagonist, Nicholas Capa (Josha Stradowski), is a rich prick who never wastes an opportunity to run Mardenborough off the road, we’re led to believe because he just despises gamers that much. When the now-factory Nissan driver takes flight at the Nürburgring’s Flugplatz in a grisly incident that ultimately kills a spectator, Capa leads a petition to ban Mardenborough—and any sim racers like him—from competing at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. While the accident very much happened and its ordering in the narrative’s chronology has been the subject of much criticism leading up to its release, the response certainly didn’t. I happen to think the movie handled the ordeal with a reasonable degree of sensitivity, at least until the writers ludicrously use it as a cudgel to beat down the most oppressed group of all.

Fun fact: While much of Gran Turismo is shot on location, the final act at Le Mans is actually filmed at the Hungaroring styled to look like Circuit de la Sarthe, with recognizable sections of track, like the Mulsanne Straight, recreated as CGI. Sony Pictures

Ironically, this turning point reveals a way Gran Turismo could have been better. This film is a whirlwind that fastidiously doubles down on every motorsport-in-entertainment trope. Spinning, dramatic cuts around cars that come and go way too quickly for their own good; sudden flashes of action where drivers decide to just go faster by shifting, turning the wheel further, or stomping harder on the throttle; plenty of screaming over radio comms; brazen on-track contact that would earn any racer a lifetime ban; and even a desperately shoehorned-in romance where Jann’s love interest, Audrey (Maeve Courtier-Lilley), plays nothing more than furniture on this hero’s journey.

But after Mardenborough recovers from his crash, Salter drives him to the scene where it happened. They have a chat, and Jann’s mentor urges him to finish the lap he couldn’t that day at the ‘Ring. It’s a genuinely moving exchange, where this film that flaunts the chip on its shoulder so incessantly sheds its meaningless veneer and gets to the root of things, with gorgeous, delicate on-location cinematography that finally allows the moment to breathe, for once. It’s a glimpse of a racing story I would’ve loved to see in a theater, the kind we rarely do. Unfortunately, it’s just not the kind that typically sells PlayStations and racing games.

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