“All good things in moderation” may be a cliché, but it’s true when it comes to fight scenes in movies. Whether it’s an intimate duel between two characters or an epic showdown between rival teams of superheroes, a little goes a long way, and more isn’t necessarily better (to use some more clichés). The Paper Tigers, a charming Kung Fu comedy from writer-director Quoc Bao Tran, understands this and uses its expertly filmed and edited fight scenes to great effect. The story is sometimes too slight to support the action and the nearly two-hour runtime, but it’s an enjoyable and promising first feature from Tran.
We’re set up to expect some kind of Karate Kid redux from the opening, in which three teenagers are practicing their martial arts skills while standing atop paint cans in a house’s garage. The three boys, Danny, Hing, and Jim, are practicing at the behest of their Sifu, Master Cheung (Roger Yuan). He’s a taskmaster, based on Danny’s fear of upsetting him after he takes a tumble while practicing. But Cheung is also compassionate and an expert healer, and he’s able to fix the injury that was troubling Danny.
The Paper Tigers then cuts to a montage of old videotapes documenting the three friends as they age into their late teens and early 20s while training and squaring off against their sworn enemy, the strait-laced and goofily committed Carter. But the montage doesn’t end with them reaching adult, and instead, the action picks up as the three are entering middle age. Danny (played as an adult by Allain Uy) has given up on his martial arts training for a marriage that ended in divorce, and now he tries to find time for his son before inevitably giving in to work commitments. Hing (Ron Yuan, the brother of Roger Yuan) has put on weight and injured himself after falling from a high platform at work, so now he’s not able to keep up with his old self. Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins) is the only one who has kept up any kind of fitness, but he’s left his moves behind in favor of Western disciplines. After decades apart, the three are brought together by the funeral of Cheung, who has been murdered by an unseen assassin. After investigating their old nemesis Carter (Matthew Page), the three go in search of Cheung’s possible fourth student, even though he swore never to teach another.
The film lives or dies by its leads, and all three are able to deftly balance the film’s lightly comic tone. But sometimes that light tone works to The Paper Tigers’ detriment. Being a Kung Fu movie, there are life or death battles, but the three leads always choose to get into these fights. After trying to establish that he wants to be a better, more involved father, there’s no way to make sense of Danny taking part in a duel by choice that will lead to his death if he fails. He does this for honor, but The Paper Tigers doesn’t sufficiently show why that matters to him as anything more than a platitude. Some of the plot contrivances also seem half-baked. The honorable Cheung that’s shown in the early part of the movie would never take on another student, especially not someone with a desire for blood and violence, and the film doesn’t explain his change of character or extreme lack of judgment. Instead, the new apprentice is a convenient way to wrap up the plot, but it doesn’t fit with what has been established about the Sifu.
The comedy and more intimate moments may not always work, but when they do, they’re irresistible. Uy, Yuan, and Jenkins are all compelling presences, and it’s believable that they could pick up their friendship after decades apart (even if the adult actors look nothing like their teenage versions). Tran and his editor Kris Kristensen also avoid overly long fights, and they keep the shots just long enough to be intelligible, without dissolving into the rapid-fire bursts that are meant to overpower the viewer. The Paper Tigers is a Kung Fu movie with plenty of flaws, but it’s hard not to like something this charming and downright enjoyable.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on September 8, 2020, as part of our coverage of the Fantasia Film Festival.