Vroom. Vroom. Zoom. In his bedroom, he’s a helluva race car driver. On the racetrack, he’s even better. That’s according to this very engaging biography/sports/drama.
There’s a whole generation who know little about the outside world and more about the virtual one in their rooms. Nagging parents try to coax them out. Society looks down its nose. But for many adolescents, some now young adults, they’ve created their own universe. A community bound by a love for competitive, simulated games. This is their glory story.
In Cardiff, Wales, Jann Mardenborough (Archie Madekwe, Midsommar) is a console gamer who stays glued to a seat in his bedroom. He’s addicted to Gran Turismo, a car racing simulator that pulls him into the world of fast autos, sharp turns and heated online competition. His dad Steve (Djimon Hounsou) wishes his youngest son was more like the elder one Cobi (Daniel Puig), a foot-baller. There’s friction between Steve and Jann, but the diehard gamer doesn’t back down: “It’s what I love. It’s what I’m good at.” His mom Lesley (Geri Halliwell Horner, Spice Girls) is slightly more empathetic.
The riff between dad and son grows, making Jann feel more misunderstood and wayward—until a buddy (Nikhil Parmar) clues him into a zany contest. Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom), a Nissan marketing executive, has a crazy idea. He’s organized an online competition and the top Gran Turismo players will come to Nissan and train to be real race car drivers.
The screenplay by Jason Hall, Neill Blomkamp, and Zach Baylin pulls from both the PlayStation Studios video game, Nissan and the real-life story of Mardenborough, who transformed himself from a behind-closed-doors superhero to the best driver at the 2011 GT Academy and eventually into a Le Mans competitor. Their script is a nice mix of compelling subplots, including The underdog blue-collar story vs. an auto giant; and tense father/son and coach/student dramas; a friendship with a young woman (Maeve Courtier-Lilley) blends romance into the storyline; and certainly Jann being the son of a Black man and White woman adds a multicultural dimension.
Blomkamp honed his directing skills with eerie sci-fi cult classics (District 9) and action/sci-fi films (Matt Damon’s Elysium). These days, he’s very adept at playing with the footage to garner great effects. Scenes with Jann in his room driving like its real and surrounded by a computer-generated car that assembles and disassembles in pieces are fun to watch. Sequences with Jann on a racetrack that segue back to him careening down a virtual track in his bedroom are equally fascinating. Credit the visuals and pacing to Blomkamp’s savvy, cinematographer Jacques Jouffret’s (Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan) keen eye, editors Austyn Daines and Colby Parker, Jr.’s precision cuts and dazzling driving stunts by the real Jann himself.
Blomkamp shows equal depth with the dramatic moments—especially those between Mardenborough and his seemingly mean but increasingly paternal coach, Jack Salter (David Harbour, Stranger Things)—or the ones with Bloom and Takehiro Hira (Snake Eyes), who plays Kazunori Yamauchi CEO of Polyphony Digital and Gran Turismo’s inventor, inside Nissan’s car biz headquarters. Whether it’s working-class life in Britain, offices in Tokyo or pit stops on a racetrack in northwest France, the direction, script, production elements and cast hold your attention, visually and emotionally.
Archie Madekwe has a tall, nerdy, geeky look, which compared to his athletic brother and blue-collar dad makes him look even more like an outcast. Additionally, his run-ins with jealous rival drivers help to make his character a likable, vulnerable protagonist, and Madekwe works that angle. However, nothing he does matches the acting prowess of Bloom as the pragmatic exec, Harbour the hard- then soft-hearted coach, Hira the inventor or Hounsou the dad with regrets.
It’s all so farfetched it’s hard to believe any of this really happened. That a gamer could become a real driving champion. That’s why at film’s end, when photos of the real Jann and his extended family appear, it takes your breath away. Like a fast car driving by and just leaving a sound. Vroom.