Fallen legends, faded friendships, and a heartwarming homecoming; The Paper Tigers hits a lot of the familiar touchstones for Kung Fu cinema while making them feel fresh, funny, and full of heart. The new underdog martial arts comedy from debut feature filmmaker Quoc Bao Tran follows three former friends who used to be kings of their local Kung Fu scene, known as the unbeatable “Paper Tigers”, and find their way back to each other after the death of their former master. Fueled by a tremendous trio of leads, Tran’s light touch, and tightly choreographed fight scenes, The Paper Tigers is an absolute delight of feel-good fun and a welcome reminder that you’re never too old to “grow up” and fulfill your promise.
Alain Uy stars as Danny, formerly his master’s most promising disciple, who grew up to be an overbooked and inconsiderate workaholic. Far removed from the local legend he used to be in the fighting scene, Danny struggles to make time for his son, lies to his ex-wife, and is obviously failing to teach his son the values he learned in the dojo. But when his old friend Hing (Ron Yuan, a total scene-stealer with impeccable timing and line delivery) shows up with the bad news that their beloved but estranged former master Sifu Cheung (Roger Yuan) has died, they track down Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins), the third leg of their once-mighty trio, and reunite for the funeral.
That reunion sends them into investigation mode after their former teenage rival Carter (Matthew Page, hilariously employed and unexpectedly charismatic as a pompous, appropriative A-hole) tells them he thinks their Sifu’s death might not be as natural as it looks. But the reunion also sets them down a path of long-overdue reckonings that urges them towards becoming the better versions of themselves they strived towards back when they were small kids with big dreams and a chosen family they believed they could count on. They found out the hard way that they couldn’t, and The Paper Tigers introduces us to this once-powerful unit just in time to witness their belated coming-of-age, when they finally learn to fight for what matters.
As for the fighting, there’s plenty of it and always entertaining as their hunt for the truth sends them into conflict with Carter, a new generation of self-trained and internet savvy young fighters who want to take the Paper Tigers’ throne, and a potentially deadly rival who threatens their claim to Sifu Cheung’s legacy. Uy, Yuan, and Jenkins are all tremendous physical performers who bring a unique style to their fight scenes, but it’s the personality they bring to their performances, combined with Tran’s attention to lacing character into his action, that really seals the deal.
The result is that each fight scene feels special and unique because it’s tailor-made to the character and the performers, who bring their distinct performative strengths and physicalities to the staging. Jim, for example, left behind his Kung Fu practice in favor of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu while Hing is out of shape and stuck in a leg brace after an accident at his construction job. Both of those character details are employed and effective in the construct of their fight scenes, whether it’s for a laugh or an unexpected walloping blow.
The character, the comedy, and the choreography all work in tandem, and when The Paper Tigers is firing on all cylinders, it’s a striking reminder that it’s not big budgets and A-list faces that make a set-piece stand out, it’s all about the scripting, orchestration, execution. The Paper Tigers is a low-budget indie (though it rarely looks it), but what it lacks in resources it more than makes up for in technique. Being that I’d like to revisit this gem as soon as possible, I worry that the lack of recognizable names could pose a problem for quick distribution, but streamers, in particular, would do well to keep an eye on this one as it hits a lot of thematic and character beats that have made Cobra Kai such a hit on Netflix. And yes, as you’re likely to hear regularly about The Paper Tigers, there’s a lot of Karate Kid‘s DNA in the tone and construct of the film, but by aging up the characters and updating the familiar archetypes, Tran carves out space for a richer, more mature investigation of grief, regret, and redemption.
The result isn’t just an impressive feature debut from Tran, who lovingly ribs and riffs on genre tropes with confident command of the narrative and action alike, it’s an absolutely lovely time at the movies. The cast keeps you laughing out loud, the fights keep you on the edge of your seat, and Tran balances it all with a steady eye for set-up and payoff. Perhaps the biggest letter of recommendation that I can grant this film is that it made me laugh so hard I had to hit pause so I didn’t miss the next scene. That’s a rare treat, which also makes a fine descriptor for The Paper Tigers as a whole.
The film does lose a little bit of its magic in the third act, where pacing takes a gentle tumble, plotting separates the film’s powerhouse trio, and attention turns towards a villain who feels unsatisfyingly one-note compared to the rest of the well-rounded players. But it’s hard to hold a grudge against minor missteps when the effect of the whole is so overwhelmingly joyful and satisfying. A lovely story about making amends, generational lessons, and the sometimes long and winding road to accepting those lessons, The Paper Tigers is a bonafide feel-good crowd-pleaser should check all the right boxes for fans of martial arts movies.
The Paper Tigers premiered at Fantasia International Film Festival 2020 and will next show at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival.