Movie Review: The Paper TIgers
By Matthew Huntley
May 16, 2021
Upon first glance, “The Paper Tigers” might seem like just another silly and routine martial arts movie, but one of things that takes it up a notch is it actually has a high regard for the martial arts, specifically Kung Fu. Writer-director Quoc Bao Tran treats the practice not as just as a thin line on which to hang slapstick gags and outrageous fight sequences, although the movie has its share of these, but as a genuine discipline that must be taught, respected, and performed routinely in order to harness its true power.
To be sure, we don’t walk away from this otherwise light and irreverent action comedy feeling like we gained a complete insight into Kung Fu, but we do get the impression the filmmakers and cast at least knew what they were doing and talking about. For this reason, “The Paper Tigers” gains more meaning and complexity than if it had merely made its martial arts subject secondary to its traditional stunts and humor.
The basic premise centers around three childhood friends, each a once-promising Kung Fu prodigy, who came of age during the 1980s and ‘90s in suburban Seattle (the opening credits double as standard definition home movies that allow us to see the teenagers grow up and excel). Danny (Alain Uy), Hing (Ron Yuan), and Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins) reunite after 30 years to avenge their murdered master, whom we see killed in the opening scene.
Theirs is obviously not a happy reunion, and not just because of their teacher’s untimely death. The three friends parted ways under hurtful and resentful circumstances and haven’t spoken in decades, but to show respect to their fallen master, the sage, chain-smoking Sifu (Roger Yuan), who taught them, among other things, “to always honor my Sifu…to be loyal to my brothers…,” they set aside their personal grievances for the sake of justice and living up to their vows as Sifu’s only disciples.
It was refreshing to find the movie exhibit patience and take the time to pay reverence toward Kung Fu’s tenets and philosophies instead of use them as mere gimmicks or hollow plot devices. However, this isn’t to say “The Paper Tigers” is heavy by any means. In fact, it’s mostly playful and energetic in the same vein as the “Rush Hour” series, with doses of solemnity here and there, which anchor the story back down to Earth so it doesn’t get too carried away or implausible for its own good.
In terms of its comedy, one of the most consistently amusing and relatable aspects of Tran’s screenplay is the question of how do three modern, middle-aged men, each insecure in his own way, find time to practice gung fu (“kung fu” in Chinese) in the 21st century and still keep up with all the other demands (or lack thereof) in their lives. Naturally, as these diverse brothers grew up and drifted apart, their once sacred vows and devotion to Kung Fu softened a bit and took a back seat to the hustle and bustle of adulthood.
Danny was the unofficial leader of the group and was once such a skilled fighter he was about to compete professionally in Japan, but conflict ensued, and now he has a demanding yet unfulfilling career in insurance that tethers him to his phone. This is much to the chagrin of his young son, Ed (Joziah Lagonoy), whom he shares with his ex-wife, Caryn (Jae Suh Park). Danny’s efforts as father are so consistently disappointing that Ed begs him not to pick up his phone when it rings because the poor kid knows it will inevitably sour their plans, which it does.
Hing isn’t doing much better in the responsibilities department. Despite Sifu bestowing upon him the knowledge of Chinese medicine, particularly with knowing just the right pressure points to hit in order to relieve pain or, in some cases, restore life, Hing essentially lazes about and walks with a limp after a construction accident rendered him partially disabled, for which he receives a compensation check. Plus, he’s perpetually gassy, a gag the movie cashes in on perhaps one too many times.
The plot kicks into gear when Danny and Hing observe a group of suspicious attendants at Sifu’s funeral and rightly suspect their master may not have just been randomly jumped by some streets thugs in the alley outside his restaurant, a scenario that doesn’t make sense given Sifu’s skills in self-defense. To aid them with their unsettling hunch, Danny and Hing seek out Jim, who, as it turns out, now manages his own gym and is the only one of the three who’s stayed in halfway decent physical shape, although he carries his share of emotional wounds. In any case, Jim agrees to help them with their unofficial investigation, despite his grudges toward Danny, the details of which I’ll not reveal. Now, as one unit, the once-close disciples make it their mission to solve the mystery of Sifu’s murder, which they start to believe may actually be the work of a professional assassin!
It’s at this point when “The Paper Tigers” settles down into its more or less pre-defined path of vengeance plot, pumped-up action, whacky yet well-choreographed slapstick and fight sequences, and of course, male bonding and forgiveness. Even though we can anticipate where the movie is going, its elements coalesce nicely and we enjoy the fun and spirited ride. Much of this is due to the affection the filmmakers not only show toward their own story and characters but to the previous Kung Fu masters (Bruce Lee) and movies (“Enter the Dragon,” “The Karate Kid”) that inspired them.
We can’t help but get caught up in the riotous adventure that ensues as Danny, Hing and Jim follow their various leads and clues around town, from their simply trying to run for the first time in years (“Yeah, that’s not happening”); to an impromptu elimination tournament with a social media obsessed street gang; to exchanging insults and punches with the pathetic but seriously devoted disciple-wannabe, Carter (Matthew Page). Carter is the lone white guy of the bunch and wanted so desperately to be accepted by Sifu and his clan that he actually took the time learn Chinese, though the others still think of him as just a fool. Granted, he’s a ripped, steroid-pumped, learned fool, with lots of skills the others grossly underestimate, but a fool nonetheless. As played by Page, the scenes with Carter actually deliver some of the movie’s biggest laughs and surprises.
“The Paper Tigers” is ultimately a genre movie, but instead of trying to hide or downplay its conventions, Tran and his team celebrate them and the result is an overall solid martial arts action comedy, one that unexpectedly venerates the martial arts. This low-budget gem is worth seeking out not only because it encourages us to reflect on the teachings of Kung Fu more than we expect but because it’s entertaining for all the usual reasons a zippy action comedy is entertaining. The movie’s intelligence, energy, and humor gel seamlessly and pay off handsomely.