The Paper Tigers is a warm, respectful and incredibly fun throwback to the golden era of 80s martial arts films at Fantasia Film Festival, with the story of three middle-aged martial arts prodigies trying to avenge the death of their teacher whilst struggling with, well, not being young and fit anymore.
This is absolutely a martial arts movie but ultimately it’s a feel-good comedy. Sure, there are moments of peril, most notably in the dramatic opening during which someone is murdered in an alleyway, but other than that it’s all light-hearted and effective comedy action, all the way.
The film focusses on Danny (Alain Uy), Hing (Ron Yuan) and Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins) who, as teenagers, were the almost legendary martial arts trio under the tutelage of the Master Cheung (Roger Yuan) who was the man murdered in the alleyway. Having grown distant via the ebbs and flows of everyday life, with Danny now a parent, Jim an MMA trainer and Hing a balding, injured man, the trio are thrust back together to get to the bottom of what happened to their Sifu.
Naturally this premise is the source of most of the film’s comedy and it almost always works somehow, despite at times being very crass and childish, and often just being extensions of the same jokes told over and over again, namely that these men are old now and struggle to fight in the same way they could when they were younger. This is mostly due to director Bao Tran finding a good balance throughout.
But, Paper Tigers isn’t a typical action movie in the sense that the action itself is contained, much like the Karate Kid, we don’t see dramatic car chases, ambushes or fights through to the big-bad. Instead we are given three fighting set pieces between willing combatants that puts the respect and discipline back into the martial arts.
Not, only does this help in suspension of disbelief when it comes to seeing these three ailing leads taking on younger and fitter opponents, but it gives the film a great structure and respect. The three fights, the first against a trio of young upstarts, the second against a former childhood rival of the gang Carter (Matthew Page, having the time of his life) and the last, a high-stakes climax against the film’s villainous assassin are all superbly choreographed, finding a perfect mix between comedy, excellent martial arts action and drama and tension.
There’s a real family-friendly sensibility to the film, there’s no violence for the sake of violence here. As the film says ‘Kung Fu without honour is just fighting’ which is something that even the film’s villain abides by. There’s also a strong anti-bullying undercurrent that adds to one of the film’s strongest relationships, between lead ‘Tiger’ Danny and his bullied son Ed (Joziah Lagonoy) where the revival of the principles and teachings of the past become the tool for Danny to improve his relationship with his son.
But most importantly Paper Tigers is a film with such a strongly realised emotional core, it touches on parenthood, reckoning with old age, reclaiming lost youth, making up for the mistakes of the past and friendship in emotionally affecting ways, all whilst paying homage to a fantastic era of cinematic martial arts history and displaying how martial arts can be applied to, and strengthen, all of those things.
Consequently Paper Tigers is a lot of fun with a great premise that’s completely mined for all of the gold nuggets there are, with a large amount of warmth and heart. It’s a great, light-hearted and pleasing entry into the martial arts genre that’s fit for all the family!
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