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‘Gran Turismo’ is stuck in second gear

Biopic turns stranger-than-fiction story of race car driver Jann Mardenborough into PlayStation ad

Archie Madekwe, left, and David Harbour in a scene from "Gran Turismo."Gordon Timpen/Sony Pictures via AP

It’s customary for a biopic to show footage of its real-life subject at the end. In the case of the abysmal racing drama “Gran Turismo,” not only is race car driver Jann Mardenborough shown, we’re told he did the stunt driving for the actor portraying him, Archie Madekwe.

Mardenborough’s story is one where truth is stranger than fiction. An expert at sim racing (that is, video games like “Gran Turismo” that simulate racing and what it’s like to drive several types of cars), he beat out 90,000 other applicants in the GT Academy competition. The win put him behind the wheel of a Nissan race car in real-world competitions.


A scene from "Gran Turismo."Gordon Timpen/Sony Pictures via AP

“Gran Turismo” fictionalizes the creation of the GT Academy and some of the details along Mardenborough’s road to success. Unfortunately, writers Jason Hall and Zach Baylin reduce an interesting real-life story that needed few embellishments to a series of standard-issue biopic and sports movie tropes. From the racer’s disapproving, overly stern father (played here by Djimon Hounsou) to the come-from-behind victories after major setbacks during the competition, these clichés have been done before and better.

In this telling, the GT Academy is a concept created by slightly sleazy marketing exec Danny Moore (Orlando Bloom). He’s seen making a deal with Nissan to bring to the racing circuit the unlikely (and potentially dangerous) idea of training gamers to drive race cars. Like everything else in “Gran Turismo,” these scenes are so underwritten they strain credibility despite the fact they’re based on a true story.

From left: Mariano Gonzalez, Darren Barnet, Maximilian Mundt, Archie Madekwe, Harki Bhambra, and Pepe Barroso in a scene from "Gran Turismo."Gordon Timpen/Associated Press

Once Nissan’s on the hook, Moore seeks to hire has-been race car driver Jack Salter (David Harbour) as the Academy’s trainer. In the movie’s one attempt at realism, Salter tells Moore he’s crazy and turns him down. A few scenes later, he’s onboard thanks to a convenient plot twist that results in Salter needing a job.


Harbour, who is fast becoming the go-to guy for good performances in otherwise irredeemable movies (see this year’s “We Have a Ghost” for another example), brings a little saltiness to his role as Salter, leaning into his character’s cynicism and disbelief. After an “inspirational” speech that quickly devolves into Salter acknowledging that most of the Academy members will probably be killed, Moore says, “Nice pep talk, Churchill!”

Madekwe is given little substance to play, which renders Mardenborough a dull protagonist. His passion for playing “Gran Turismo” is barely explored, validating his father’s concerns that he’s wasting his life on some video game. When Mardenborough enters GT Academy, his interactions with other teammates and mentors are all one-dimensional. These supporting players are either mean competitors to be defeated or bland allies, none of whom we get to know beyond a few lines of dialogue.

This lack of characterization is a surprise, as Baylin received an Oscar nomination for writing 2021’s “King Richard.” While that film also fell into its share of biopic traps, it gave Will Smith and Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor meaty, complex roles to play as the parents of tennis champions Venus and Serena Williams. “Gran Turismo” is more concerned with promoting the game than its players, which isn’t surprising considering this movie is co-produced by PlayStation Productions.

The film’s visual look is as inert as its screenplay, and its attempts to make the real racing scenes look like “Gran Turismo” gameplay by overlaying the game’s graphics with live footage fall embarrassingly flat.


And as if baiting detractors of the much-maligned Kenny G, we’re subjected to numerous instances of “Songbird” on the soundtrack, which Jann listens to in order to relax. The track even figures in the film’s big inspirational climax.

Even worse is its handling of the expected second-act moment when the hero has doubts about his skills and his future. “Gran Turismo” stages a scene where Mardenborough has a horrifying car accident that kills a spectator. Though Madekwe is finally given an emotion to convey, the film’s cavalier treatment of this plot development leaves a sour taste.

“Gran Turismo” is terrible, though not as bad as director Neill Blomkamp’s earlier film, 2015′s “Chappie,” about a sentient robot cop.

You may remember the tweet that created the meme inspired by that movie — a viewer on a date points at Chappie the robot onscreen and whispers, “That’s Chappie.” That same viewer would point at this movie and whisper, “That’s crappy.”


Directed by Neill Blomkamp. Written by Jason Hall and Zach Baylin. Starring Archie Madekwe, Orlando Bloom, David Harbour, Djimon Hounsou. 135 minutes. At AMC Boston Common, suburbs. PG-13 (F-bombs, race car crashes)

Odie Henderson is the Boston Globe's film critic.