Review: A Driving Simulator Comes to the Big Screen in Gran Turismo, Featuring a True Story and Thrilling Racing Scenes

As I’ve commented about most films based on video games, I knew absolutely nothing about Gran Turismo going into this work. Unlike other video game movies, Gran Turismo isn’t actually an adaptation of the game at all, since, from what I can deduce, the game doesn’t have a story. In fact, many of those who play it prefer you call it a racing simulator rather than a game, since there is no real objective other than to improve and win. The game’s designer, Kazunori Yamauchi, spent years perfecting the simulation’s appearance and performances, across a large selection of vehicles, most of which are licensed reproductions of real automobiles. He also mapped out dozens of real-world race tracks, giving the players the feeling that they were racing real vehicles…but in preparation for what?

Based on the hard-to-believe true story, director Neill Blomkamp (District 9) answers that question, sort of, by introducing us to a team of unlikely folks who transitioned from simulation drivers to real drivers under the guidance of trainer and failed driver Jack Salter (David Harbour). When idealistic motorsport executive Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom) comes to Nissan with the idea of sponsoring a contest among the best simulator drivers in the world for the chance to compete in a real race, the risks and liability must have seemed insurmountable. But a prolonged racing academy experience weeded out the best of best, a gamer who came from a working-class family, Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe), whose only goal in life was to become an actual driver, despite pleas from his father (Djimon Hounsou) and slightly more supportive mother (Spice Girl Geri Halliwell Horner) to try something more practical and certainly safer.

No one was more skeptical of the program than Salter, who openly mocks these gamers at every turn. Still, Jann shows promise, while still lacking actual experience against seasoned drivers. Recently having left the Capa team as its crew chief because he hated the owner’s son Nicholas Capa (Josha Stradowski), who also happened to be the team’s driver, Salter took this gig because he was fully in control and could at least protect these rookies from getting hurt (the film also unnecessarily sets up Capa as the villain in a story in which inexperience is a much more dangerous foe). The training sequences and the real races are shot with the expected energy but Blomkamp also shows us visually how Jann uses his thousands of hours of simulation training to out-maneuver his opponents, finding lines through traffic where others can’t, and even spotting issues with his car that Salter misses.

Jann starts out real-world racing not doing so well, as one might expect, but he does actually finish his first race and improves gradually from race to race. The movie makes it clear (perhaps too much so) that what is really fueling Jann is defying expectations and proving everybody wrong, especially his overly protective father. When Jann needs to rise to a top finisher in order to acquire his race car license, he pulls it off. But a nasty accident that ends up killing a spectator takes its toll on Jann, physically and especially mentally, almost to the point where he can’t function as a driver.

The entire film brings us to the 24-hour race at Nürburgring, where Jann and two other drivers from the original academy must win in order to keep the Nissan sponsorship alive. This endurance test is messy, dangerous and incredibly thrilling to watch the way Blomkamp shoots it all. The scenes taking place during a rainstorm are particularly harrowing. 

I’m not sure I’d call anything about Gran Turismo inspiring (who is it meant to inspire besides kids in this exact situation?). There’s certainly an interesting story here, but I was equally intrigued by the story of the creation of the game and Yamauchi’s obsession with creating the perfect driving-simulation experience. Blomkamp has always had a gift for directing action sequences, even in his less successful works, but here, he actually manages to capture a bit of the humanity of these characters. Still, this is a sports movie with very few sports-movie cliches left untouched. 

The film’s race sequences leave us crackling and somewhat exhausted, as they should, but the inspirational speeches are also exhausting, for all the wrong reasons. Madekwe (whom I recognized from Ari Aster’s Midsommar, and can also be seen in the current Netflix actioner Heart of Stone) is good in this role, but he frequently comes across as a typical moody kid who refuses to listen to his parents, and we know how fun those kind of characters always are. The entire film made me curious about the real Jann, but not to such a degree that I went home after seeing the film to look up his true story. For other gamers, he must have been a role model; to other drivers he was either a curiosity or a menace; but to the rest of us, this movie should have given us more to care about as far as his story goes. Still, the racing sequences carried the day for me, and sitting through the other real-life simulation that made up the rest of the film was my cross to bear.

The film is now playing in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.