Former kung fu students must avenge their master in this action comedy
By Diana Beechener
As teens, Danny, Hing, and Jim were the feared disciples of Shifu Cheung (Roger Yuan: Mulan). The trio known as the Three Tigers were undefeated when challenging other kung fu students. Brawling their way across the city, they grew their reputations as well as their egos. They were seen as the future of the practice, and the only students Shifu Cheung would ever need.
Thirty years later, none of the men speak, let alone keep up with their mastery of Kung Fu.
Danny (Alain Uy: Helstrom), once thought to be the rightful successor of Shifu Cheung, is a divorced dad who can’t seem to get his life together. Hing (Ron Yuan: Mulan) suffered an accident that ruined his leg and left him with a permanent limp. Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins: Octopus Pot) is a Brazilian jujitsu coach who had an argument with Danny and hasn’t seen his friends in decades.
When Shifu Cheung dies under mysterious circumstances, the three must reunite to avenge their master. But thirty years without practicing kung fu has left the Three Tigers rather…toothless. Can men with bad backs and slow reflexes fight their way back to honor?
A light romp that doesn’t worry about the dozens of plot holes it leaves, The Paper Tigers is full of enough spunk and energy to distract viewers from the glaring script issues. Director Quoc Bao Tran makes his feature debut with a funny action movie filled with heart. Tran has a great sense of comic timing, letting his actors riff on each other in a natural way. The punchlines never feel forced, and Tran has a talent for building to a comic reveal. The film feels like a mashup of the early films of Stephen Chow and Jackie Chan, both of whom used martial arts as a comedic art form.
Tran is also deft at filming action sequences. Unlike many modern films, there’s a real weight to the fights in The Paper Tigers. Much of that can be attributed to a particularly visceral sound design. When bodies slam, they hit the ground with a thick thud. Kicks and punches are accompanied by crunches of bone and flesh. It’s surprisingly gritty for a light action comedy.
Though the action and the jokes are on point, The Paper Tigers stumbles on its story. The film is set in a heightened kung fu world where no one calls the cops after violent street brawls, there are kung fu hitmen that murder with poison finger strikes, and to-the-death duels are just a normal thing that happens. Plotlines are brought up and dropped, seemingly on a whim. The reason each man stopped speaking to Shifu and each other is built up but the reveals are ultimately unsatisfying and forgettable.
Character traits that define the leads at the beginning are dropped with no explanation as well. Danny is framed as a workaholic absent father who strands his young son at the office when he takes a weekend business call. His demanding job, however, completely goes away when Danny choses to go on a quest for justice to honor his Shifu. It’s these inconsistencies that keep the audience from truly caring about the men at the center of the story.
Even without deep characterization, enjoying The Pater Tigers on a superficial level is pretty easy. Tran clearly has a deep love of the genre and the action sequences are great tributes to icons such as Lee and Chan. Uy also carries the film beautifully as Danny, a man who lost his way and his honor. He’s a great natural presence and offers a believable transformation from loser to kung fu master.
If you’re in the market for a send-up of the kung fu genre that’s got plenty of laughs, The Paper Tigers is a great $7 rental. Its tone and laughs never waver, even when the script doesn’t strike true.
The Paper Tigers is available on Amazon Prime or other on-demand services for $6.99.
Good Action * PG-13 * 108 mins.