The Paper Tigers is the long-gestating, partly Kickstarter-funded feature debut from Bao Tran. Who has previously directed a couple of critically acclaimed Kung-Fu shorts and trained under famed Hong Kong action director Corey Yuen. And Bao is far from the only one with action movie credentials, as throughout the cast and crew there is martial arts pedigree a-plenty. There is also little doubting the passion put into this project, even if the results are ultimately mixed.
The basic set-up here is simple. Danny (Alain Uy), Hing (Ron Yuan) and Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins) are three middle-aged former martial arts prodigies who must band together to avenge the death of their master Cheung (Roger Yuan). The only problem being they have somewhat let themselves go. Danny is now a skinny insurance salesperson and has not trained martial arts in years. Hing is broken down and overweight after being injured in a construction accident. Jim turns out to be the exception, having become an MMA coach.
As concepts go, it is solid. What if The Karate Kid had to fight again after doing a desk job for 25 years? Or what if Bruce Lee was still fighting, but now he is in his late-40s and has a beer belly? However, it is also a concept with only so much mileage. There are a lot of painfully obvious gags about dodgy knees, lack of cardio, hair loss and weight gain/loss. Some of these still land, but too many are heavily signposted or simply lame. Similarly lame are a few gags which rely on homophobia for their punchline.
The midlife gags are not the only obvious element here, as the plot will hold little surprises for any action fan out there. There are several clunky generic elements at play, such as the character of Danny, who is the stereotypical movie dad. You know the amusingly sarcastic, workaholic, useless but ultimately loving type. His character arc is immediately apparent from the first time you see him. Plus, the script is similarly laden with clichés about honour and friendship. That said, the central trio all have good onscreen chemistry and are all eminently charming in their respective roles.
There are also some moments of freshness here, too. Particularly in the credit sequence where we see ‘The Three Tigers’ in their prime through a series of home-video clips of their fights. In this sequence, there is a vibrancy and energy that most of the rest of the film can’t quite match. Another key strength is the fight sequences, whether in this opening sequence or any of the present-day fights which see our middle-aged trio take on various foes. Most of the fight sequences are excellently choreographed, and the skill of those involved is easy to see.
One of the standout moments, both comedically and in terms of action, is when the three take on their old frenemy Carter (Matthew Page). In fact, any of the trio’s interactions with Carter are a highlight. Some viewer may know Page through his Master Ken videos on YouTube. And the character of Carter basically sees him reprise that role (imagine a role part Rex from Napoleon Dynamite, part White Goodman from Dodgeball). He is a fortune cookie philosophy-spewing muscle head and steals most of his scenes.
These scenes also see Uy, Yuan and Jenkins at their funniest too as they rib the now beefed-up Sifu that they used to so easily best. Tonally it works best too as proceedings immediately perk up each time it leans into silliness and parody. Conversely, things really drag the more it tries to play it straight and dives into more dramatic territory. The threesome’s quest to avenge Cheung’s death feeling curiously low-stakes.
For all its dramatic deficiencies and clichéd elements, The Paper Tigers is difficult to dislike. Those involved clearly made it with a lot of passion and it is a generally a sweet-natured, feel-good comedy with some real highlights of both the action and comedy variety. The movie is obviously squarely aimed at the generation who grew up on The Karate Kid and Jackie Chan films. And it will undoubtedly work for some of that audience, even if it ends up being more of a middle-aged 3 Ninjas.
Screened as part of Fantasia Festival