Gran Turismo: Based on a True Story

The true tale behind this racing flick is genuinely rousing, even if the film itself always sticks to the obvious track.
Sarah Ward
Published on August 10, 2023


Speeding onto screens with instant brand awareness is 2023's big trend. Air, Tetris, The Super Mario Bros Movie, Flamin' Hot and Barbie: they've all been there and done that already. Now it's Gran Turismo's turn, albeit with a film that isn't quite based on the video game of the same name. Directed by Neill Blomkamp (District 9, Elysium, Chappie), and penned by Jason Hall (American Sniper) and Zach Baylin (King Richard), it also doesn't tell the racing simulator's origin story. Rather, this pedal-to-the-metal flick focuses on the real-life Nissan PlayStation GT Academy initiative from 2008–16, and the tale of British racer Jann Mardenborough specifically. The overall program endeavoured to turn the world's top Gran Turismo players into IRL motorsports drivers — and the Cardiff-raised Mardenborough is one of its big success stories.

The ins and outs of GT Academy receives hefty attention in Gran Turismo: Based on a True Story, plus Mardenborough's life-changing experience along with it; however, much is also made of a massive marketing push. Air, Tetris, Flamin' Hot: yes, they should all come to mind again. Here, Nissan executive Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom, Carnival Row) wants to attract new customers, ideally those leaping from mashing buttons to hitting the road. Accordingly, he conjures up the console-to-racetrack idea to help make that sales boost happen. You don't see it in Gran Turismo the feature, but surely taking the whole situation into cinemas if the underlying concept proved a hit was part of that initial plan as well. Amid the ample product placement anywhere and everywhere that the film can slide it in, that certainty thrums constantly.

Kicking into gear based on Mardenborough's tale, the big-screen Gran Turismo has an unsurprisingly engineered air from the outset, then. If filmmaking at its most formulaic sticks to a track, and it does, then this example doesn't dare deviate for a single second. Hall and Baylin gleefully take Hollywood license with the facts, too, and early. For starters, Mardenborough is positioned as the first champion at GT Academy, and part of a make-or-break gambit when he scores his chance to turn professional. In actuality, the program had anointed two previous winners. That's the thing about keeping on your line: it's meant to be the optimal route. So, if you're adhering to the usual rousing underdog sports-film script, which Gran Turismo: Based on a True Story always is, then that kind of tweaking is standard — and, at best, feels like it.

The movie's Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe, Beau Is Afraid) has only ever wanted one thing for his future: to race. While his ex-footballer dad Steve (Djimon Hounsou, Shazam! Fury of the Gods) thinks it's unrealistic, he's always dreamed of getting behind the wheel IRL, but he'll take Gran Turismo's lifelike approximation if that's all that's on offer. Enter Moore's gimmick, with Mardenborough's skills in the game earning him a near-fantastical opportunity, and seeing him hop from Wales to Japan, Dubai, Germany, France and more. Although his mother Lesley (Geri Horner, aka Spice Girl Geri Halliwell) is more supportive, trainer Jack Salter (David Harbour, Violent Night), a former driver himself and the man that'll become the GT Academy's mentor, is as sceptical as anyone can be about the entire notion. That's accurate even after Salter agrees to the gig, a choice made purely because he's working for an arrogant and entitled rich kid (Josha Stradowski, The Wheel of Time) otherwise.

Someone segueing from excelling behind a gamer's racing wheel at home and in arcades to competing in motorsports — Mardenborough has gotten zipping in formula racing as well, and hit the track at 24 Hours of Le Mans — is genuinely remarkable. As a result, plenty about Gran Turismo: Based on a True Story's subject's reality already fits the against-the-odds template that's reached screens over and over across a plethora of different activities, and that this picture is so slavishly devoted to. Darren Cox, Moore's off-screen equivalent, truly couldn't have hoped for a better story if he was thinking about the silver screen back when he came up with GT Academy. That tinkering when the details don't immediately suit the feature's easy blueprint, however? Again, it's to be thoroughly expected, but it's overtly calculating. Changing the timeline around a fatality solely for dramatic purposes, to give Mardenborough something else to overcome on the road to greatness? That's also deeply shameless and unnecessary.

Thankfully, as by the numbers as Gran Turismo: Based on a True Story always proves — and as questionable and needless as some of its plotting choices are — the tension revving through the movie's on-the-track scenes is also genuine. There's little that's out of the ordinary about Blomkamp's approach, nor about cinematographer Jacques Jouffret's (Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan) penchant for swooping sky-high shots (their film doesn't threaten Rush or Ford v Ferrari in the hypnotic stakes, either), but the racing scenes still thrill in the moment. That said, using graphics to construct a car around Mardenborough when he's driving in his bedroom, and to take him back there when he's on the asphalt, isn't the savviest move. Instead of being immersive, it too smacks of needing to shoehorn in as many references to the game, PlayStation and Sony as possible, a motivation that's already evident everywhere that viewers look.

There's no mistaking the money-driven motives behind Gran Turismo: Based on a True Story's casting and the characters that it heartily swerves into, too. As Mardenborough, Madekwe is energetic and likeable — convincingly sweet and awkward as required as well — but the fact that the film hinges upon its most bankable name is as glaring as the sun bouncing off a windshield. Since Stranger Things became such a smash, no one enlists Harbour as a cantankerous figure without wanting his irascible best. Blomkamp and company get it, and often, while always making it plain that the feature is built as much around his performance as it is GT Academy, Mardenborough's true tale and selling games. Gran Turismo: Based on a True Story had to get its personality somewhere, of course, because it doesn't spring from its director. Joining the list of acclaimed names doing a workmanlike job on formulaic fare that almost anyone could've handled of late — although doing better than Meg 2: The Trench's Ben Wheatley — he's happy steering a highly watchable but always-routine affair.


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