The Three Tigers kicked and punched their way to legendary status in their prime. When the beloved master who trained them is found dead in a dark alley, they reunite to investigate his suspicious demise.
However, with physiques in varying degrees of waning disrepair and a host of middle-aged complications, our heroes must face a new wave of opponents without the bravado of youthfulness in their corner.
Can the trio rekindle their kung-fu fire swiftly enough to survive a murderous test of their fortitude and honour?
Quoc Bao Tran’s feel-good fable of male ego fragility follows three working-class has beans on a midlife crisis mission to reclaim their self-esteem. The humour is broad and the violence muzzled, but that doesn’t hold back The Paper Tigers from being a riotously good time.
The story opens with camcorder footage flashbacks of the tigers mid-80s heyday, reflecting the old school sensibilities of Tran’s flick with self-aware panache. Consequently, the film’s tone is eminently more Karate Kid than Fist of Fury, yet it’s exactly that philosophical grace that accentuates its everyman charm.
Alain Uy’s introverted Danny is the narrative focal point, however, all three leads are fleshed out admirably and there is fine work from the eclectic supporting cast. Not least from Matthew Page as the over-earnest uber dickhead Carter. His impromptu spouting of fortune cookie philosophy in Chinese, while staring into the middle distance, never gets old.
Giving concerted relatability to action movie protagonists is nothing new. Most recently Train to Busan, The Host and Saat po long 2 proved that rich characterisation can elevate a film above and beyond genre ceilings. What is fresh about The Paper Tigers is how it uses the ageing Alpha male dynamic to both mock and cherish the more reflective convictions of martial arts. Or, as is reiterated in the film, “Kung-fu without honour…is just fighting.”
The action sequences are kinetic and build in exponential urgency as the film progresses. The stakes are often either unclear, trivialised or overblown but somehow that does not harm our investment in its vibrant and engaging universe.
Punches and kicks connect with weight and repercussion, utilising a myriad of fighting styles, including groundwork and “Five Animal play”, that maintains a flow of viridity. The combative MacGuffin of the deadly poisoned fingers technique is a slightly lazy way to amplify the jeopardy. That being said, it is somewhat counterbalanced by the fact that one of our longshot losers possess a similar capability, for the inverse purpose of healing.
Jokes, both visual and verbal, land more often than they flounder with the physicality of the slapstick elements handled with style and skilful timing. The Paper Tigers may have the narrative trajectory of a video game, complete with end of level bosses, but it has the swollen heart of a classic underdog picture.
For a long time now the martial arts film has seen a mean spirited sea change in the direction of hyper-violence. With the world stuck in a political cycle of destructive polarisation and held hostage by a socially paralysing pandemic, The Paper Tigers is just the kind of regressive catharsis we all need right now.
World Premiere Fantasia Film Festival 2020 Selection 2020 Live
Sun August 30, 2020 9:00 PM & Tue September 01, 2020 5:30 PM
Martial Arts, Action Dramedy | USA | 2020 | 108 mins | AMP International, XYZ Films |Dir. Quoc Bao Tran With: Yuji Okumoto, Yoshi Sudarso, Ron Yuan