When you’re a martial artist and your master dies under mysterious circumstances, you avenge their death. It’s what you do. It doesn’t matter if you’re a young man or if you’re firmly living that middle-aged life. Your teacher’s suspicious passing can’t go unanswered. So you grab your fellow disciples, put on your knee brace, pack a jar of IcyHot and a few Ibuprofen, and you put your nose to the ground looking for clues and for the culprit, even as your soft, sapped muscles cry out for a breather. That’s The Paper Tigers in short, a martial arts film from Bao Tran about the distance put between three men and their past glories by the rigors of their 40s.
It’s about good old fashioned ass-whooping too, because a martial arts movie without ass-whoopings isn’t much of a movie at all. But Tran balances the meat of the genre (fight scenes) with potatoes (drama) plus a healthy dollop of spice (comedy), to similar effect as Stephen Chow in his own kung fu pastiches, a la Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer, the latter being The Paper Tigers’ spiritual kin. There’s a bit of Way of the Dragon in here, too, but Tran’s screenplay offsets the purity of Bruce Lee’s famous confrontation with Chuck Norris using his characters’ years and ego against them: Once a kung fu hotshot, always a kung fu hotshot, except all that heat is tempered by layers of bodily misuse. These aren’t masters in hiding. They’re sadsacks in khakis.
Leading the khaki-sacks is Danny (Alain Uy), once upon a time known as “Eight Hands” for his sheer unmatchable speed. In the film’s present he sells insurance while making a strong showing as a constitutionally unreliable father to his son, Ed (Joziah Lagonoy), and his ex-wife, Caryn (Jae Suh Park). Danny wears Bluetooth earbuds the way canines wear collars: His boss calls him on his weekend with Ed, gives him a command and all Danny can do is follow it to Ed’s crushing disappointment. Father of the decade. Enter Hing (Ron Yuan), one of Danny’s old friends and fellow former student to Sifu Cheung (Roger Yuan). Hing lets Danny know that Sifu met his end and that it looks like it could be murder most foul, and he’s trying to get the band back together to find out what happened and who did it.
Alone, Hing is just Hing. Together with Danny and their third brother, Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins), they’re the Three Tigers—each with a handful of bumps, bruises and handicaps holding them back. A foot chase with one suspect, for instance, ends as fast as it begins: Hing drops to the ground immediately as the far younger man runs off like a bullet as the camera dolly backwards, because even if Hing can’t run, Danny surely can. Then the camera dollies right past Danny, huffing and puffing, struggling to catch his breath. It’s a clever, inventive shot coupling the energy expected from martial arts cinema with one of comedy’s unexpected punchlines—a jest spun from failure and made at the expense of the protagonists. There’s movement to the joke, a zippy pacing Tran employs as adeptly in The Paper Tiger’s comic moments as in its action beats.
If the movie serves as any kind of object lesson, it’s about the relationship between action and comedy, arguing, as does Chow’s cinema, that the line separating the two is surprisingly thin. Tran makes great use of angles and composition for both framing his fight sequences and making his audience laugh. A kick to the gut, fueled by ear-slapping “power,” in Hing’s words, lands the same as Yuan trading exaggerated body mockery with Matthew Page, playing Carter—once the white boy martial arts prodigy wannabe the Tigers picked on, now a master capable of beating each Tiger in single combat. Hing’s put on a few pounds in his years. So has Carter. Watching both actors pantomime their characters’ respective weight gain is the film’s most childish gesture, but given that everyone here is trapped in a form of arrested development, that’s part of the pleasure.
Tran uses martial arts as a catalyst for growing up, a piece of connective tissue between the protagonists’ past that gives them new perspective on their present. This applies most to Danny, The Paper Tigers’ truest lead, who as a divorcé and a dad is in desperate need of a reset button. Hing, the heart and the head of the group, believes in kung fu more than either Danny or Jim, but at least Jim trains boxers while Danny works out of an office (or, in a pinch, his minivan). Danny is fully removed from his history. It shouldn’t take the demise of a father figure to get one’s act together, but The Paper Tigers is Danny’s journey back to who he was and toward who he could be today. If it sounds like a bunch of macho nonsense that finding Danny’s self means beat people up (and being beaten up), no problem: Tran’s rundown of kung fu’s spiritual component clarifies the value of sparring for self-actualization, and for realizing how to treat others. The film doesn’t glorify violence. It glorifies growth.
But the violence is fun, too, and Tran’s use of close-up cuts in his fight scenes helps give every punch and kick real impact. Amazing how showing the actor’s reactions to taking a fist to the face suddenly gives the action feeling and gravity, which in turn give the movie meaning to buttress its crowd-pleasing qualities. We need more movies like The Paper Tigers, movies that understand the joy of a well-orchestrated fight (and for that matter how to orchestrate a fight well), that celebrate the “art” in “martial arts” and that know how to make a bum knee into a killer running gag. The realness Tran weaves into his story is welcome, but the smart filmmaking is what makes The Paper Tigers a delight from start to finish.
Director: Bao Tran
Writer: Bao Tran
Starring: Alain Uy, Ron Yuan, Mykel Shannon Jenkins, Roger Yuan, Matthew Page, Jae Suh Park, Joziah Lagonoy
Release Date: May 7, 2021
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.