At one point during The Paper Tigers, a character describes someone else by this charming observation: “You look like a fat Asian Mr. Rogers.” Apart from being hilarious, it actually sums up the movie pretty well; it’s big, in touch with its own culture despite the American setting, but ultimately wins out because of the size of its heart.
And The Paper Tigers, when it gets down to it, really has heart – a frequently fresh and often delightful king-fu dad movie that serves as a confidently fun directorial debut for Tran Quoc Bao — the kind that suggests that the best is yet to come from him. It’s got the direction of action that well reflects his background as a martial arts artist, but also the direction of actors that grounds the film within its enjoyably absurd premise.
The premise is thus; Sifu Chang (Roger Yuan) is an old master of kung-fu now keeping a low profile… but it’s not enough to stop a mysterious assassin from offing him almost immediately for mysterious reasons that shift as the film progresses. Chang dies alone, but the grief is shared, mostly between three of his older students (and I mean older) – the Tigers. In a found-footage-esque montage set from the ‘90s that plays during the insanely fun opening credits, we’re effortlessly shown both their wondrous skill at fighting, and their carefree nature that comes to colour and contrast the rest of the movie. Without spoiling some of the more fun details, it also shows how much the martial arts mean to them for cultural reasons – and how much sifu did.
Essentially, this all sets up your classic “out of the game fighters have to do it one more time out of revenge” that’s become a staple of Hollywood recently. But unlike John Wick or Bob Odenkirk in Nobody, who basically recede back into their old killing machine ways almost effortlessly, time has not been kind to our three Tigers. They’ve all betrayed themselves in some way in middle age – and betrayed each other by letting the bond they had go limp; a bond that Sifu’s death resurrects.
The opening is truly outstanding – and if the rest of the film can’t quite reach those giddy heights, it’s only because the bar was set so high. The Paper Tigers has an early momentum that’s as funny as it is thrilling and fresh (and surprisingly emotional in ways you might not expect), but it’s only weaknesses are maybe in how it struggles to keep it going, especially in its second and third acts that don’t quite pack the same punch. Luckily (and skilfully for the filmmakers), the goodwill of the opening stretch is more than enough to keep our attentions wired in as these lovable morons barrel towards some kind of revenge and resolution, and figure out which one matters more.
The fun is in the execution for this one, so I won’t get into specifics with this review; but this is an action comedy that’s well worth checking out. Behind the one liners and the kicks, it’s really about getting back in touch with the person you used to be, as opposed to the person you’ve become when you weren’t looking, and whether the two have anything to say to each other. Sometimes, they do! And when they don’t, there’s a catharsis in getting to kick the shit out of it.
Paper Tigers is now available on digital.