Review by Daniel Mendes, NRFTW Contributor
“Gung-Fu without honor is just fighting.” Danny, Hing, and Jim are out for vengeance against the murderer of their Sifu, Cheung. Along the way, the three friends reconnect and learn the true meaning of Gung-Fu while dealing with the existential dread of getting older. Director Bao Tran’s The Paper Tigers is a martial arts film, a character drama, and a comedy filled to the brim with fun characters.
Alain Uy, Ron Yuan, and Mykel Shannon play three middle-aged men who don’t have much going for them. In their youth, they were Gung-Fu prodigies, but now, their best years are behind them. Our protagonists start off as selfish, immature, and are generally unlikable characters, but as the film progresses, they become wiser and more selfless. Their age makes for good physical comedy and effective character arcs, particularly for Alain Uy’s Danny, a divorced father trying to connect with his son which serves as the emotional core of the film.
Matthew Page plays the comically oblivious Carter. The rivalry between Carter and the Paper Tigers is funny but equally sweet. Their back-and-forth banter is clever and gives us insight into their relationship. We can feel their mutual respect despite their best efforts to outdo one another.
The fight sequences aren’t as showy as what you’d find in other martial art films, but they are fun all the same. The lead actors lack the physical ability to fully execute the choreography, but that lends to the film’s authenticity. The set pieces are not only high in tension and stakes, but they’re fun bits of slapstick reminiscent of Jackie Chan.
While the mystery of who murdered Sifu Cheung is the movie’s overarching narrative, Bao Tran’s main interest seems to be in getting to know the characters which works for the most part, but comes at the cost of the plot. The main villain, played by Ken Quitugua, isn’t revealed until the final third of the film, and his reveal holds no weight because the mystery is placed on the back-burner for large chunks of the runtime. Ken Quitugua’s stunt work and screen presence make him seem to be a strong foil for our heroes, but without any real character development, he comes across as one-dimensional.
The Paper Tigers works best when it relishes in its characters and the overall tone of a martial arts comedy. Tran humanizes the unlikable trio by taking them on a journey of self-discovery and transformation through the philosophy of Gung-Fu. For fans of comedies about middle-aged angst and martial arts action, The Paper Tigers is the film to seek out.