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REVIEW: ‘Gran Turismo’ is an unexpectedly moving video game and racing drama

By Jerald Uy Published Aug 29, 2023 3:52 pm

If your child pushes pawns on the chessboard to be the next grandmaster, there’s comfort in knowing he wouldn’t get hurt in playing the sport. When he asks for the latest gaming console and it fits your budget, you would likely give him what he wants, so long as playing is done under your roof. Parents want their children to be safe, generally. 

But what happens when he eyes being a race car driver that is inherently dangerous due to high speeds? Add the fact that he is riding along a marketing gimmick of turning video gamers into legit racers.

This is the premise of Gran Turismo, subtitled “Based on a True Story” in the Philippines. It tells the story of Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe), a Gran Turismo gamer who grabs the opportunity to be trained to become a professional racer. At its core is a conflict with his father, Steve (Djimon Hounsou) who won’t be riding shotgun toward Jann’s dream. 

While Madekwe showcases his acting chops, Hounsou, who we last saw as The Wizard in Black Adam and Shazam! Fury of the Gods, reminds us why he was nominated twice for Oscars, one for In America and the other for Blood Diamond. Hounsou’s performance amplifies a cathartic scene that could strike a chord among individuals who have grown apart or estranged from their fathers. 

Madekwe keeps up, channeling the sense of loss and failure in a later scene. David Harbour of Stranger Things fame provides support to Jann’s character journey as his trainer Jack Salter, a former pro racer who chose to leave it all behind after a tragedy. Harbour effectively shows his acting range outside of playing a Demogorgon slayer and being a Hellboy himself. 

David Harbour as Jack Salter in Gran Turismo 

Another cast member that viewers might find her stature distracting is Geri Halliwell-Horner aka Spice Girls’ Ginger Spice. Had my seatmate not mentioned she is Ginger Spice, I would have thought she played Jann’s mother, Lesley, well. But every time she popped on the screen, I would see her as the pop icon, and not the character. 

Continuing with the analogy in races, Gran Turismo does not preach about having only one direction in life. One can step on brakes and go on a different track, but only if you move past the spot that weighs you down and halts you from moving forward.

What makes the movie fall behind in this spectator’s eyes is the promotional bits of the game. The prologue that appears like an advertisement for the game disconnects from the movie’s narrative. The footage also feels misplaced after reappearing early in the movie. Even the meeting with the game developer Kazunori Yamauchi (Takehiro Hira) looks like a PR stunt. Still, Yamauchi’s cameo as a sushi chef is a fun easter egg. 

Another weak point is the subplot involving Jann’s romantic interest, Audrey (Maeve Courtier-Lilley). Remove her scenes and the film still stands. 

As for action sequences, it is top-tier. Filmmaker Neill Blomkamp immerses graphics of the video game in actual car chases and races using Jann’s POV. If you came for adrenaline-pumping scenes, you’d be satisfied.

Gran Turismo tells the story of a gaming enthusiast who grabs the opportunity to be trained to become a professional racer.

The soundtrack also captures what is inside the mind of a race car gamer and it is not what you might expect. From Enya’s soothing music to Kenny G’s soulful jazz, the music brings the needed time out in the action-packed movie.

While biographical, there were a lot of changes in characters, probably to avoid tainting the reputation of people involved in the rise of Mardenborough in professional racing and opening some legal troubles. A case in point is Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom), a marketing executive at Nissan, not existing in real life. Other antagonists are also composite characters of people Jann met during the race. 

A multi-layered race car-video game hybrid drama, Gran Turismo has all the trappings of an underdog story engaging you enough until the finish line. 

Gran Turismo: Based on a True Story opens in Philippine cinemas on Aug. 30. Watch the trailer below.