Drive, Sony Said

‘Gran Turismo’ is toy product placement disguised as a fairly effective racing-underdog story

‘Gran Turismo’ is a 135-minute commercial for the Sony and Nissan corporations, masquerading as a formulaic story about achieving your dreams against impossible odds. The fact that it’s a fairly effective application of that formula is a credit to director Neill Blomkamp, who takes his corporate assignment and infuses it with some style and genuine emotion. While not as good as two other recent car-racing movies, Ron Howard’s ‘Rush’ and James Mangold’s ‘Ford V. Ferrari,’ ‘Gran Turismo’ is still a fairly effective underdog story with some cool driving scenes.

GRAN TURISMO ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Neill Blomkamp
Written by: Jason Hall, Max Baylin, Alex Tse
Starring: David Harbour, Orlando Bloom, Archie Madekwe, Dijmon Hounsou
Running time: 135 mins

I understood what we were in for when, before the action started, we saw the Sony Playstation logo on the screen. Though Gran Turismo, the video-game racing simulator, is a very different kind of toy than, say, Barbie or Lego, this was still going to be a movie that taps into toy IP, encouraging its audience to buy and play with toys.

Our main boy with the toy is Jann Mardenbourough, played by the charming but somewhat flat Archie Madekwe. Jann is a working-to-middle-class kid in Cardiff, Wales, the son of a former journeyman professional footballer, who Dijmon Hounsou plays with his usual dignity. Jann’s sport is the ‘Gran Turismo’ video game, and despite his dad’s misgivings, he manages to win a world-wide contest for a spot in Nissan’s GT Racing Academy, and then he miraculously becomes a professional race-car driver.

The fact that the movie fudges and condenses some of Mardenborough’s journey doesn’t detract from the fact that this is a mostly true story, and that the real Jann Mardenborough has enjoyed a nearly decade-and-a-half as a successful motorsports athlete after learning how to drive high-performance cars playing a video game. Gran Turismo follows a series of predictable story beats, which are bearable because they are mostly true, and therefore feel mostly real.

I spent several years as a part-time motoring journalist, despite my incredible lack of skills behind the wheel, so I can say with moderate authority that all the racing scenes feel extremely accurate. The movie makes great use of real-life tracks like the one in LeMans, and Germany’s deadly Nurburgring, where Mardenborough nearly lost his life in a terrifying accident in 2015. Blomkamp is quite skillful in making the racing scenes tense and realistic-feeling. And he does an excellent and clever job showing Mardenborough’s gaming mindset, where the track dissolves around him and you can see him applying his video-game analysis to terrifying high-speed situations.

The driving is the fresh stuff in the movie, because we’ve seen the plot beats a million times before. There are some female racers at GT Academy, but the movie glosses over them. This is a movie about men, and largely for men; Mardenborough has a girlfriend, whose main job is to admire him, and his mother does little more than shriek “MY BABY!” when Jann gets in an accident.

Orlando Bloom gets a lot of screen time as a handsome but somewhat sleazy Nissan marketing executive, but David Harbour, as the former pro racer who Nissan brings in to train Mardenborough, carries most of the emotional heft. Harbour gives an excellent performance, mostly devoid of melodrama, playing the kind of character we’ve seen a thousand times before, giving this kid-making-it-all-come-true movie at least some flavor of adulting. The kid achieves his dream, the mentor gets his redemption, and Sony gets a free ad for its Gran Turismo game. Everyone wins, or at least finishes third.

And it’s true that Mardenborough did finish third at LeMans in 2013, but he did it on a team called “Greaves Motorsports.” The one time he did drive the race for Nissan, his team didn’t finish. But that wouldn’t exactly make good product placement.


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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 12 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

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