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‘Sand Job’ review: The old Top Gear gang deliver a vintage hurrah

‘Sand Job’ is a highly cinematic trek across the Sahara Desert in a modified Aston Martin, a Maserati and a Jaguar

The Top Gear gang returns in 'Sand Job'

By Raja Sen

LAST PUBLISHED 28.02.2024  |  04:27 PM IST

I first read Jerome K Jerome’s comic masterpiece Three Men In A Boat (To Say Nothing Of The Dog), a novel published in 1889, when I was eleven years old. The book about three Englishmen (and their dog) taking a two-week holiday coloured not only my understanding of Victorian fiction, but expanded my horizons of the point of literature itself: that it could, quite simply, be a lark. Here was a book considered a classic, but there was no discernible point to it. There were no bad guys, no motives, no mysteries, no morals. There was no conflict. Plotting a holiday could be the same as plotting an adventure. 

I thought frequently back to Jerome’s novel while watching Sand Job, the latest episode of automotive programme The Grand Tour, that came out on Amazon Prime last week. The Grand Tour features Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond — who all started out with Top Gear on the BBC — and there really doesn’t seem to be much point to their misadventures. These are petrolheads in an electric-car world, politically incorrect fogeys desperately out of touch with the world as it stands today. They are just about as relevant as King Charles.

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Thankfully, they’re funnier. Sand Job is a jaunt I’d place right alongside vintage Top Gear. The two-hour film captures a highly cinematic trek across the Sahara Desert in a modified Aston Martin, a Maserati and a Jaguar. This fact that they’re driving unfit cars — instead of picking desert-ready souped up 4x4s — is what makes the difference. Like the men driving them, these cars have no business cutting across the dunes of Mauritania and thereby doing the last leg of the historic Paris-Dakar race, but both the men and the cars improvise. 

Back to the novel. Clarkson, the bombastic ringmaster, embodies a brash charisma reminiscent of Jerome's George, whose grand schemes frequently devolve into uproarious calamities. From attempting to convert a Reliant Robin into a makeshift spacecraft to pushing the boundaries of sanity with audacious stunts, Clarkson's larger-than-life (and often obnoxious) persona has always dominated the screen, much like George's leadership among his befuddled companions.

May — unforgettably nicknamed Captain Slow — is the epitome of refinement and fastidiousness. Mirroring the scholarly nature of Jerome's narrator “J," his pursuit of automotive perfection is often thwarted by the whims of fate. Whether meticulously dissecting the engineering marvels of supercars, or the history contained in ancient libraries, May's dry wit and pedantic tendencies add a layer of intellectual depth to the trio's escapades.

And then there's Hammond, the daredevil maverick whose boundless enthusiasm mirrors the adventurous spirit of Harris, his impulsive nature often leading to comedic conundrums. From ill-fated attempts at DIY engineering to hair-raising feats of automotive acrobatics, Hammond injects a sense of reckless abandon into the group dynamic, much to the amusement (and occasional horror) of his comrades.

Sand Job sees our intrepid trio almost drive onto a minefield — then debate whether putting up a cautionary sign for a minefield would be as effective as a minefield itself. The nothingness of the desert is awe-inspiring, as is a sequence where the cars go hunting for a great big eye, and we see a landmark of the Sahara that takes the breath away. Meanwhile our three hosts thirst constantly for beer and gin in a dry Muslim country, until finally Clarkson announces that he knows an off-license that has a branch in every capital city in the world: the British Embassy. Classic.

Clarkson is 63, May is 61, Hammond is 54. They may once have been spry young coupes, but they are now creaking muscle cars that belong behind glass. Yet there they are, looking at the longest train I’ve ever seen, and filling each other’s cars up with sand. An underlying feeling of romanticism spurs them on, and their joy is infectious; they can’t believe their own luck, playing with toys for a living. Even when the world, and their audience, have moved on.

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Drag races don’t mean what they used to. Once they were about cars gunning it hard, obscenely burning rubber and fuel in a gloriously loud dash to a finish line. Now they are fashionable, fabulous and presided over by Ru Paul.

This world has little room for these men — once television icons who ran one of the most viewed shows across the world — who are now entirely out of their depth. There is something to be said about them understanding their own lack of significance. This is their penultimate adventure, they claim, but there is little fanfare. There is, however, much fantasy. 

Like in the book, we laugh at the characters more than we do with them. This is what Britain has come to now. Three unwise men, daft as the UK’s politicians and as tone-deaf as their newspapers, bumbling across the world while they still can. Rooting for these three feels like rooting for camaraderie itself. I enjoyed Sand Job so much I wish it were their last go-around. Thank you, gentlemen, for tilting at exotic windmills in shabbily customised supercars and for always saying the wrong thing. Thank you for not knowing better. Thank you for the memories — to say nothing of the cars.

Streaming tip of the week:

Emma Stone is the frontrunner to pick up her second Oscar this year for the film Poor Things. While we wait for that Yiorgos Lanthimos film to come to India, do watch his superb The Favourite (Netflix) which stars Stone, Rachel Weisz and an Oscar-winning Olivia Colman.

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