The Grand Tour ‘A Massive Hunt’ review: Madagascar trek is (mostly) worth the wait

Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May playing boules in Madagascar
Buried treasure: Fans of Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson, and James May can at last watch the Grand Tour’s “A Massive Hunt,” now streaming on Amazon. Pic credit: Amazon

Possibly born of pure annoyance from constant questions as to when it would finally appear, The Grand Tour’s second episode of Season 4 was at last released — and a day earlier than announced.

Titled “A Massive Hunt,” the special was shot last year, and until today, the only massive thing about it was the public badgering the hosts have endured as COVID-19 delays pushed the release date back by months.

But it’s mostly worth the wait.

This is the second installment of the Grand Tour’s new look, which ditches the tent home of Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May and focuses on what fans have traditionally loved best — watching the three have caustic, cinematic motoring adventures against exotic backgrounds.

Shiny new toys

A Massive Hunt opens in the Indian Ocean, on Reunion, a French island off East Africa. Instead of the usual run-down crapmobiles the trio typically nurses across a far-flung finish line, they all have shiny new toys.

Clarkson is driving a V8 Bentley Continental, while Hammond is behind the wheel of the latest version of the Ford Focus, the RS. James May has drawn the inverse of Clarkson’s cushy Bentley, a Caterham V10R, a stripped-down lightweight racer. This appeals to his Reassembler side: “You even have to attach the steering wheel,” he says, beaming, as he… attaches the steering wheel.

We’re shown a 12 mile ring road built off-shore, like a rockslide-escaping Seven Mile Highway of the Florida Keys. It’s the most expensive road in the world, so of course the hosts conduct a drag race while the showroom shine is still on (longtime Top Gear/Grand Tour fans won’t be surprised by the first person to lose a speed contest on this engineering wonder.)

Still, this was initially disappointing, as part of the fun of Top Gear/Grand Tour is watching these millionaires battle their own pre-knackered modes of transportation, pushing through punishing terrain and staggering mileage as their cars fall apart around them. I should’ve had more trust; this is the Holy Trinity of Destruction, and these rides don’t stay commercial-ready for long.

If you enjoy the scripted bits of the Top Gear/Grand Tour oeuvre, this special is your huckleberry. The boys are going treasure-hunting, and their guiding light is a cryptogram reportedly left by hanged pirate Olivier Levasseur. May pretends to work on cracking the code as Hammond and Clarkson pretend to wait and for-real drink (the code’s alphabet is on Wikipedia, but its translated text is gibberish and remains incomprehensible.)

We are asked to believe that an entire retinue of camera crew and kit hang around for three days while this takes place, and that Hammond also waits quite some time before sharing pertinent treasure-hunting information.

They do, however, have the rare self-awareness to later wink at the viewer when they drastically modify their cars. For just as this begins to feel like a late Top Gear episode full of supercar poster shots — Clarkson crows about having a “proper, functioning, decent car” in a challenge for once — after it’s “learned” that they will take on the famously wretched roads of Madagascar, their beautiful new rides are adorned with winches, treads, and 4×4 light kits.

These vehicular transformations are credited to an amazingly “well-equipped” auto repair shop, and I do believe this is the first time it’s openly acknowledged that these challenge-related pimpings don’t take place at the trio’s own hands (I discovered the original Top Gear on my brother-in-law’s DVR, and as I watched stock cars magically transform into semi-trucks, I asked him, with great earnestness, if these three men were engineers in addition to car enthusiasts. He slowly, sadly shook his head.)

Atrocious roads

It soon becomes evident why the hosts enjoyed the first-ever privilege of starting from new: The roads, even the main roads, of Madagascar really are that atrocious. They wouldn’t have made it fifteen feet with the baseline of the already-exhausted blind buys with which they usually begin their adventures.

Mileage-wise, the crew doesn’t travel far, by Top Gear/Grand Tour standards, and the reason is apparent as the vehicles first get dusty and then half-drowned in foul mud. “The water’s like a bath that someone’s had diarrhea in,” May says as yet another wave of human excrement breaks over his head. The rock-strewn, deeply pitted roads they’re driving on look like what we in the West would use as a rough hiking trail (my husband mentioned that, and I mention that my husband mentioned that because he demanded credit.)

These men are their best when the fictional situation they’re in brings them into real trouble. They abandon one another, bicker over whether on not the place they’re heading actually exists, break down repeatedly, and enter and leave with general mayhem. As they labor for every mile of progress, sometimes on three wheels, the punishing manner in which they scrape their way down the road recalls the inch-by-inch progress of the Top Gear Polar Special.

A Massive Hunt is 90 minutes long, so there’s plenty of time for Hammond to have adventures with an auto-heating MRE and Clarkson to hurl a rotten coconut at some fresh ones.

Worth the price of admission alone are the views of Madagascar, not only for its spectacular beauty, but also the glimpses of its struggles as a developing nation. Clarkson states that most locals get by on less than a dollar a day, and in a culture accustomed to seeing Madagascar only through the Instagram filter of gorgeous beaches, entrancing biodiversity, and deep green tropical glades, the fuller picture is important to see.

Despite the worn faux premises and increasingly cringy ways in which the locals are inconvenienced (Hammond holds up an entire wedding party for two hours), the genuine misery on the face of May in particular is a reminder of the drastic physical toll these shoots must require. The gag setups are fake, but the strain they generate is quite real.

I’m at least a decade younger than Hammond, the baby of the trio, and as I watched yet more bits of vehicle fly off, leading to another winching scene, I lost count of the number of times I’d have picked my way to the nearest WiFi signal and first flight to running water. The distance was short, but the journey was long.

A Massive Hunt’s final scene is the usual Catskills-style gotcha, but the show does contain a somber Top Gear/Grand Tour first — yes, there are still room for those, and that’s what keeps us along for the ride when these three are in the driver’s seat.

The Grand Tour Presents: A Massive Hunt is currently streaming on Amazon Prime. 

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