Pierre Morel's excellent District B13 caught our attention with the parkour-meets-martial arts theme so raptly that a film released months prior to it in the same vein got next to no recognition because of it. "The Great Challenge" (AKA "Sons of the Wind") was the original foundation-layer of this interesting subgenre, I think, but truth be told, it cannot stand against its direct competition when it comes to content. Still, that doesn't mean that it isn't one of the more interesting DTV releases flooding the American film market today, with some definite substance to back up its flair. While there's little chance that this one will become your new favorite, it is, at the very least, a fix for parkour lovers who've been left dry since Casino Royale.
The story: a newly-established parkour team travels from France to Thailand to hone their skills, but quickly get caught up in the organized crime scene, which has been tense ever since the forging of a shaky alliance between the Tongs and the Yakuza...
I won't get into it too much, but the plot really is one big mishmash, to the point that you'd have to watch the movie twice to even remember the names of all of the characters. For ease of reference, most of the starring cast belong to the Yamakasi parkour team and were previously featured in a self-named vehicle. With the notable exception of Elodie Yung (District 13: Ultimatum), most of them aren't actors but generally do a good job at furthering the long-winded tale. Even if you're not in the mood for paying attention to the plot, the movie boasts rich, engaging cinematography that is in itself more interesting than any of the dialogue.
Of course, the action scenes are what make a movie like this, and by conventional standards, what you see is pretty good. Stunt coordinator Seng Kawee (Ong-Bak) and fight choreographer Xin Xin Xiong (Time and Tide) wrangle about four parkour demos, two fistfights, and one combination of both. Scenarios include an acrobatic game of hot potato on rooftops, a massive swordfight, a fight on a bamboo scaffold, and our heroes using their skills to escape gun-wielding attackers. By and by, these are entertaining and abundant enough to satiate the casual viewer, but not without debilitating faults: questionable camerawork and quick-cut editing are the bane of any modern action movie, but when applied to free running panoramas like here, they're loads more maddening. No, the scenes are not completely ruined and the action still looks decent, but all the while, I couldn't help but imagine how much better they would have looked if the camera had just been pulled back a few more feet or a shot been allowed to run for a few seconds longer in several scenes.
A few scenes that try to enhance the characters' personality (one fellow communes with his dead grandfather in a Buddhist temple, another learns muay thai from a master) aren't too effective and could have easily been cut from the movie, which would have then been left at a slim 80 minutes. All around, as it is, it's not nearly as good as it could have been but is vastly superior to the dozens of low-expectation movies being made cheaply nowadays. "The Great Challenge" borders on a four-star rating but misses out due to its scratchy story and overzealous editing. Nevertheless, it's worth a buy if you like this kind of stuff and will definitely make you take notice of the Yamakasis. Here's to hoping their next film eliminates these faults!