Review: THE PAPER TIGERS, Contemporary Martial Arts, Favoring Comedy Over Action
Alain Uy, Ron Yuan and Mykel Shannon Jenkins star in the martial-arts action-comedy, directed by Tran Quoc Bao.
Danny, Hing and Jim are the Paper Tigers, three Gung Fu prodigies who have lost their way and grown into washed-up, middle-aged men.
Danny works in insurance and struggles to fulfill his shared time with his son. Hing is hobbled and collects disability checks. Jim has left Gung Fu and now teaches Jiu Jitsu and MMA. The horror. These three ‘brothers’ are forced to reunite after 25 years apart when their master is murdered. They must overcome old age and old grudges if they are to find their master’s killer and get justice for his murder.
The Paper Tigers is a rare contemporary martial arts film. It follows the type of traditional structure we would find in a classic Shaw Brothers film, that of a series of duels culminating with the final fight against the villain. Not taking away from all the amazing contributions the many, many fight films have made to the genre in recent years, it's nice to go back to something a bit calmer, more reflective of our middle aged heroes and their quest to avenge their master. The action is somewhere in between the two; It is the formal setup of a Shaw Bros duel but pared down from the current, all-out martial arts/mma hybrid brawls.
Interesting fact: Quoc Bao Tran was mentored by martial arts cinema legend Corey Yuen. While I’d, like you, would love to see what unleashed Tran could do with the kind of large-scale action set pieces his mentor did, with his first film Tran displays a lot more restraint when it comes to the action in The Paper Tigers. Of course, The Paper Tigers is a wholly different kind of action film than what Tran’s mentor is known for. Whether he was in the East or the West, Yuen’s work was large-scale action set pieces. The Paper Tigers is not a spectacle kind of action film, though the martial arts action in it is still very good.
In his movie Tran is working with one of his most frequent collaborators, Ken Quitugua (Bookie and The Challenger with Andy Le), who wears two hats here. Quitugua is coordinating the action scenes and playing the film's villain Zhen Fan. Together they create plausible showdowns between the trio and their opponents throughout their quest. Tran and his camera crew capture clear action and flow. I find myself in a forgiving mood when it comes to its punch, hit, land editing because we sense ahead of time that this is a more traditional approach to telling a story than the current crop of martial arts action, which is focused on upping the ante.
This is real strength of The Paper Tigers. It focuses on telling a good story with good characters, and letting the action be the bridge, instead. The action does not suffer for this, oh no. There is no afterthought when it comes to Quitugua’s choreography, but the focus is not on elaborate set pieces and intricate motions. These are still duels between foes and foes have to be defeated.
The cast includes some noticeable faces. Andy and Brian Le from YouTube's MartialClub are among the first group the Paper Tigers face off again. Stuntman Gui DaSilva-Greene, a regular stunt performer on many Marvel films and series and frequent guest on Corridor Digital's Stuntmen React videos plays young Jim. You see him in action in the montage at the beginning of the film which establishes their young dominance over all competitors, including frequent target Carter.
Old Carter is played by Matthew Page, another YouTube celebrity in his own right with the Master Ken videos, a legitimate black belt and damned fine comedian. Which leads us to this next strength of the movie. What I was not expecting was for The Paper Tigers to be so funny. Really funny. Laugh out loud every few minutes funny. The thing is, it’s all subtle. They're often throwaway jokes and jabs that just hit right, every, damn time.
In hindsight, a movie like The Paper Tigers may be a perfect litmus test/gateway film for adults looking for a good introductory level martial arts film for their offspring, or if you’re like me, you’ve lived precariously through your siblings’ offspring. There are contemporary moral lessons for everyone to learn about loyalty, friendship and family. There are dynamics in the family and in the schoolyard that may be relatable to a lot of adults and children.
In a sense, this can be their The Karate Kid. Their 1984 The Karate Kid, thank you very much. Some things may not be suitable for children of all ages, but if you’re looking to pass along your love for martial arts to the young ones, keep an eye out for The Paper Tigers.
Originally published during Fantasia in August 2020. The film opens in U.S. and on digital on May 7, via Well Go USA. Visit the official site for more information.