The first thing you should know about Tran Quoc Bao’s “The Paper Tigers” is that his low-budget kung fu comedy — the heartfelt tale of three arthritic middle-aged Seattle men reuniting to avenge the murdered sifu who mentored them as teenagers — is often just as winning and delightful as you would hope from its premise. Unfolding like a silly-sweet cross between a Shaw Brothers classic and the kind of dad movie that USA Network might air between golf tournaments on a Saturday afternoon (“Wild Hogs” would seem an obvious point of reference, but this is a positive review), Tran’s debut feature delivers a ton of charm for a kung fu throwback, and kicks a lot of ass for a broad comedy about some old guys relearning how to honor each other and fight for themselves.
If “The Paper Tigers” sags around the middle and loses its focus as it limps towards a finale that doesn’t hit with the force that it should, well, perhaps that’s to be expected from a martial arts movie whose heroes can’t throw a punch without pulling a muscle.
Tran establishes his old-school Kung Fu bonafides right from the jump, as the action kicks off with a shadowy prologue in which the great Sifu Cheung (Roger Yuan, whose natural gravitas lends this film some much-needed heft) is killed by an assassin’s deadly palm technique in the alley behind the Chinese restaurant where he works these days. With that ominous threat hanging in the air, “The Paper Tigers” jumps back in time for a camcorder montage of the late sifu’s three sworn disciples training together in the ’90s, and this is where the movie’s charm is honed into a lethal weapon.
Tran flexes so hard during the opening credit sequence that you almost expect him to burst a blood vessel behind the camera; in the span of just a few low-res minutes, the writer-director introduces his three leads, sketches their reverence for sifu (and irreverence towards everything else), implies how their kung fu served as physical and cultural self-defense against whiteness (in a funny way!), and sports a few quick bits of fight choreography that hit harder than the brawls at the end of most Hollywood action films. In fact, “The Paper Tigers” starts on such a high that its record-scratch jump back to the present is even more jarring than intended.
Needless to say, things haven’t really panned out for Sifu Cheung’s three Tigers; they don’t even speak to each other anymore, thanks to an incident of some kind at a kung fu tournament some 25 years ago. Danny (a slippery but endearing Alain Uy), once the leader of the pack, is now a bitterly sarcastic divorcee who drives a minivan, wears a bluetooth earpiece — is there anything less kung fu than that? — and reliably disappoints his young son during their scheduled weekends together. Hing (played by the hugely charismatic “Mulan” star Ron Yuan) was always the big galoot of the group, but even his bones have gone soft now, and he can’t even walk without a serious limp; not that you sense he’s got anywhere to go.
Jim (an earnest but muted Mykel Shannon Jenkins) is the only one of the Tigers who still looks like he’s got some roar left in his lungs. His day job has kept him in good shape — Jim works at a local gym where he trains other Black fighters — but his grudge against Danny is so intense that he might not have his back when the boys start agitating Seattle’s kung fu community for leads about their late master.
That mottled sense of loyalty is the closest thing that “The Paper Tigers” has to a moral core, as all of these characters have failed to show up for each and themselves in some way (“Kung fu without honor is just fighting” becomes a common refrain). Tran’s script is so determined to massage the friction between East and West into the fabric of modern life that it often seems hesitant to put a finer point on things.
That’s most evident in the film’s second half, where Sifu Cheung’s absence is sorely felt and missed opportunities abound to explore why Seattle’s Asian-American community is tearing itself apart. For a kung fu assassin whose deadly fingers can fool the cops into thinking someone died of a heart attack, the target of the Tigers’ search turns out to be kind of a dud.
It sure can be fun trying to watch them find him, though. If the murder-mystery element of “The Paper Tigers” is pretty crumpled stuff, it still provides a few perfect excuses for people to beat the crap out of each other for our amusement. Fight scenes are few and far between (there are only three big ones), but that makes sense in a movie whose leads are less “Jackie Chan in ‘Police Story’” than “Jack Nicholson in ‘Something’s Gotta Give,’” and Tran makes sure that every kick leaves behind a bruising smile.
With the help of choreographer Ken Quitugua and a cast that refuses to break character even when it seems like they might break their necks, Tran delivers a series of grounded stand-offs that would still make Stephen Chow proud. The direction is clear, the kicks are brutal (one even leaves a dusty footprint on someone’s chest), the backdrops are vivid (i.e. an empty pool a gang has converted into their hideout), and the gags land as hard as hard as the body blows. Hing getting hit so hard that it dislodges his toupee might sound hacky on paper, but Yuan sells it so beautifully; if some of the film’s punchlines fall on their face, there are enough laughs packed into the punches themselves to make up for it.
Funniest of all is “Enter the Dojo” star Matthew Page, who seems to have made a whole career out of caricaturing the recognizable phenomenon of the white guy who turns Asian cultural appropriation into a lifestyle. Carter was the kid who the Tigers used to clown on and beat up back in their heyday, but he stuck with it once Danny and the boys lost their way, and now he runs the local kung fu school with big Ed Helms energy and even bigger arms; the fact that he speaks Cantonese better than any of the Tigers do says more about Carter’s respect for Sifu Cheung than it does anything else, as Uy was born in the Philippines and his character’s heritage is left unclear.
Still, there’s plenty of gentle friction to be found in how the film negotiates Carter’s place in this story of immigrants and outsiders, and the chemistry that Tran finds between his cast is combustible enough to keep the movie hobbling along even when no one on screen can stand up straight. Kung fu without honor is just fighting, but “The Paper Tigers” always makes it feel like so much more.
Well Go USA will release “The Paper Tigers” in theaters and on VOD on Friday, May 7
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