Three former friends and martial arts experts must put old differences aside and avenge the murder of their teacher. Sound familiar? But what if, instead of still being unstoppable ass-kickers they’ve traded that life for 9-5 jobs? Quoc Bao Tran’s The Paper Tigers gives us heroes for whom marriage, divorce and raising children have replaced kata, stances and tournaments. It’s an interesting riff on a well-worn plot device.
The Paper Tigers opens with a montage of videos from the 80s and 90s. We see the younger versions of our heroes training and fighting in assorted back alley tournaments. Up until Danny left for a tournament in Japan.
Now fate has brought Danny (Alain Uy, True Detective), Hing (Ron Yuan, Mulan, Marco Polo) and Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins, Undisputed 3: Redemption) back together. Master Cheung (Roger Yuan, Accident Man, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum) has died under suspicious circumstances, And they intend to do something about it.
Based on the director’s short The Challenger, The Paper Tigers had a convoluted road to the screen. Pitches for the film were received with enthusiasm if Tran was willing to rewrite it for non-Asian actors. Instead, he turned to crowdfunding and made his first feature his way.
And that determination was worth it. The Paper Tigers spoofs one of the most used cliches of martial arts films while being respectful to the arts themselves and the lessons they teach. Something we see reflected in Danny’s need to learn how to teach those lessons to and be a role model for his own son Ed (Joziah Lagonoy).
And that’s what threw me about The Paper Tigers. It’s pitched as an action comedy, and there are fight scenes. Well done fight scenes at that. But among the fights and the jokes, there’s a lot of serious moments. About values, choices, fatherhood and growing up. And that circles back to what I said about the values martial arts teach. It never gets too heavy or serious, but it is a lot more thoughtful than I expected.
The cast is up to handling it and shift between the film’s tone well. Apart from the leads, Yuji Okumoto (Beta Test, The Crow: Wicked Prayer) makes a great villain. Matthew Page (Enter the Dojo, Odd Thomas) is fun as Carter and veteran actor Raymond Ma (Always Be My Maybe, Lethal Weapon 4) has a small role as Carter’s teacher Sifu Wong.
The Paper Tigers could easily have ended up being a martial arts version of The Wild Hogs. Instead, it’s a funny, exciting and, at times, charming, film. It made its world premiere at Fantasia, with an encore showing September 1st. You can check the film’s website and Facebook page for more festival dates.