The Bock’s Office: ‘Gran Turismo’ a racing, video game hybrid that feels more real than it should

Jann Mardenborough readies for a big race in "Gran Turismo." The movie is based on a true story of a gamer who became a real-life racer through his expertise in the PlayStation series.
Sony Pictures Entertainment/Courtesy photo

Unfortunately for most video game enthusiasts, there’s not much opportunity to use your hours of practice in real-world applications. Neither fire-breathing reptiles nor giant apes are kidnapping spunky princesses in your neighborhood. Sorry.

But, if you’ve spent tons of time behind a plastic steering wheel, maybe there’s a fraction of a chance you’ll follow in the tracks of the hero in “Gran Turismo.”

When he’s in his bedroom at the helm of his game console, British youth Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe) is one of the most prominent racecar drivers in the world thanks to endless time spent engaged in the PlayStation series “Gran Turismo.”

Years of muscle memory and study of driving techniques in the highly realistic simulator have gained him quite the online reputation. But none of that matters to Jann’s father (Djimon Hounsou), a former soccer pro who believes his son has been wasting his life obsessing over a game that won’t translate to any success in the real world.

However, Jann has the opportunity to make the move to a true driver’s seat when he is accepted into GT Academy, a program established by Nissan to find the most skilled gamers in the hopes of training them for true racing.

The shift is grueling for Jann and his fellow competitors, but an unstoppable desire to make it to the finish line is all that matters. Madekwe joins the ranks of other sports film underdogs like “Rudy,” “Seabiscuit,” and “Cool Runnings,” whom the audience immediately wants to succeed even if all their colleagues despise their mere presence.

The actor makes all the correct turns and shifts the emotions at the right time as the kid who has to earn any respect even in his own household, though his pouty nature gets old before long given that he beats massive odds to even get in a real car.

“Gran Turismo,” 2.5 out of 4 stars

134 minutes, rated PG-13

Starring: Archie Madekwe, David Harbour, Orlando Bloom, Djimon Hounsou

Matching Jann’s dedication to the sport from a gamer perspective is David Harbour as Jack Salter, a crusty mechanic and engineer who — like most of Harbour’s characters — has been chewed up and spit out by the industry and holds a love-hate relationship with cars and pure loathing for the noob drivers he’s now guiding. Picture a less comical version of John Candy’s Irv Blitzer whose whole attitude is, “Yes, this whole venture is a joke, but I’ll watch out of spite.”

On the publicity side of this triangle is Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom), whose pitch to start the GT Academy is to find a way to sell the thrill of revving a motor to a generation that largely doesn’t want to do their own driving.

Sounds great, right? Of course, at the first chance, corporate Legolas tries to downplay Jann’s soft-spoken personality for his more marketable and charismatic rival in the training session.

It’s great when people have faith in you, right?

Even if you use a joystick every day, when you hear any film is based on a video game, there will instantly be a bias either way. Gamers will be skeptical about the change in medium, while movie snobs will expect the resultant piece of work to be a childish, stupid venture.

And while neither camp is completely wrong in this instance, the fact that PlayStation is able to tout a practical application for the controller-wielders of the world is pretty impressive in itself compared to the purely fantastic elements of something like “The Last Starfighter” or “Ready Player One.”

While at times the narrative feels like a two-hour advertisement, knowing that a real person went through all this grounds it greatly, though screenwriters Jason Hall and Zach Baylin take advantage of that allowance more than they should by tinkering with the facts.

Some changes in the timeline are to be expected. For instance, Mardenborough was not the first big winner of GT Academy as it seems to suggest. Likewise, one of the more disastrous moments of his career during a race in Germany didn’t happen right out of the gate, but much later when his career was more established. But, that’s not as inspirational.

The direction by Neill Blomkamp is skillful, even if this is nowhere near the “District 9” filmmaker’s wheelhouse — hey, it’s a huge step up from “Chappie” — and emphasizes the science of racing above the idea that drivers simply have a gut feeling every time they face a tough decision on the track.

That distinction on its own may be what determines how someone feels about a flick like this and how it’s juxtaposed to the usual elements of racing movies.

If you’re drawn to the ego-driven dynamic of “Days of Thunder” and “Rush” or even “Talladega Nights” or “Cars,” then it might not be in your lane. Yet, in a year where the exploits of Mario and Luigi amount to one of the biggest blockbusters of late, the lack of escapism might also be a turnoff.

Curiously, when two genres that are both known for outlandishness come together, the combination doesn’t make the crazier parts all the more so.

The realism of “Gran Turismo” ultimately serves it better than it ought to, given that its whole reason for being is to demonstrate how the digital generation can make the push to new worlds. It’s not going to appeal to all audiences, but it’s also meant to reach the people who have been told no and keep going.

Let’s just hope that EA Sports doesn’t try the same tactics to find the next great NFL star, because being in a car at 150 mph and having a linebacker headed straight for you at nearly the same speed are two drastically different scenarios.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Craig and Moffat County make the Craig Press’ work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.