For one reason or another, the majority of Kung Fu films out there don’t feature stories about middle-aged heroes. While obviously actors like Jackie Chan and Jet Li are well into their 50’s and 60’s, they’re in such good shape that they can pass for much younger men. The films starring them typically aren’t framed as washed-up martial artists looking to seek revenge.
That’s what makes a film like The Paper Tigers so interesting. Billed as a Kung Fu comedy about middle-aged underdogs, it’s one of the few times I’ve seen a martial arts film put its main characters so low on the ladder. They once were Kung Fu gods, but now they’re just regular dudes that have to deal with everyday problems. It’s intriguing, for sure, though not without its faults.
While obviously created with a ton of heart and featuring an otherwise sincere story, The Paper Tigers fumbles in the comedy aspect, and that ultimately drags the film down.
The Paper Tigers
Director: Tran Quoc Bao
Release Date: August 30, 2020 (Fantasia International Film Fest)
The beginning of The Paper Tigers immediately introduces us to the three main characters we’ll be following. A group of kids practicing Kung Fu in the early 90s, Danny (Alain Yu/Yoshi Sudarso), Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins/Gui DaSilva-Greene), and Hing (Ron Yuan/Peter Adrian Sudarso) are studying hard under the tutelage of Sifu Cheung (Roger Yuan) and generally acting like punks. While Cheung attempts to impart the knowledge and moral guidelines of Kung Fu into their brains, the kids simply want to fight and prove themselves to the world.
A montage of brutal fight scenes later, we flash forward 30 years to the present day and are greeted to a harsh reality. Danny is in something of a broken marriage and is struggling to make time for his son. Having not seen his fellow brothers for decades, he runs into Hing outside of his home and learns that their master has been killed. While attending the funeral, a bunch of punks start causing a scene and the duo sets off to investigate.
They are pointed in the direction of this younger gang by their old rival Carter (Matthew Page) and attempt to tackle them in the streets. Realizing they’re now completely out of shape and incapable, they call on the help of Jim -who never quite gave up martial arts- to get to the bottom of things. Cue fight scenes, heartfelt moments, etc.
The premise hardly breaks the mold of the average revenge plot seen in most Kung Fu movies, but the framing is what lends uniqueness to The Paper Tigers. As I stated in the intro, this is a film about washed-up has-beens that are simply seeking to honor the memory of their teacher. That’s rare for a martial arts film and it lends itself to fights you wouldn’t typically see.
Pretty early into the movie when looking for Jim, Hing starts to boast about how these younger MMA kids wouldn’t know a real kick if it hit them. He lines up at a bag to show off a kick, but his bum knee gives out and he practically breaks his leg. It’s a chuckle-worthy moment, but it also highlights the biggest flaw this comedy has: the comedy isn’t actually all that humorous.
The Paper Tigers shares a sense of humor that could be compared to films produced by Judd Apatow. It features a bunch of adults acting like children and going for low brow jokes. That’s not to say there isn’t a lot of heart here, but the typical laugh the film wants is almost mean spirited at times. You’re laughing more at how debilitated life has made these guys instead of something genuinely funny or smart. There are also way too many fart jokes, though maybe that’s my personal preference coming out.
At least when it counts, the fight scenes nail the whole “older underdogs” angle. You get expected moments like Hing cracking his leg and Danny getting winded from a simple kick, but the team quickly leans on their years of experience reading people to overcome the flash and pizazz of their younger opponents. It’s thrilling because the odds are so stacked against them, yet they manage to come out on top. You’re never sure if they’ll lose a fight or not which adds a ton of drama to what would otherwise be one-sided duels.
There’s also a serious dive into what friendship means and how life can throw you curveballs on a whim. Danny and Jim had a major falling out and while I won’t spoil the reason for it, watching them overcome their pasts and accept each other again is legitimately heartwarming. You understand exactly what they both were thinking and while you might personally pick sides, both have concrete reasons for their actions. It doesn’t feel like contrived melodrama for the sake of a plot.
It really is a shame that the comedy aspect wasn’t better realized. I can tell that director Tran Quoc Bao was going for a gritty film that had a darker sense of humor, but I rarely laughed at any of the jokes in The Paper Tigers. The one that got me was when the trio faces off against Carter and Hing loses his toupee. The shot composition where it focuses on Hing’s face as Carter drags the hair away is hilarious, as is the acting by Yuan. He totally sells the devastation of being seen bald.
I also can’t say that the fights are the best thing I’ve ever seen. During the final confrontation, the movie starts to rely a bit on CG for Danny’s unique ability and it sort of robs the moment of its impact. It’s not even bad looking CG, mind you, but it feels like unnecessary slow motion for a fight that would have looked cooler at regular speed.
Thankfully, the bonding between its key players makes The Paper Tigers an enjoyable watch despite its shortcomings. It’s weird that a comedy that kind of bungles the comedy aspect is still overall a decent film, but that can almost be seen as a parallel to its main characters. Just like how Danny, Jim, and Hing are living in the past, The Paper Tigers attempts to capture some youthful energy by refusing to grow up. It certainly could have been a more mature and “respectable” film, but then we’d lose the charm of what is this messy, realistic, and unique take on a tried and true formula.
If you’re a fan of this genre or just like films that examine what it means to fight for your beliefs, The Paper Tigers is bound to have something you’ll enjoy.