Quoc Bao Tran
Alain Uy, Ron Yuan, Mykel Shannon Jenkins, Jae Suh Park, Joziah Lagonoy, Roger Yuan, La’tevin Alexander, Matthew Page, Ken Quitugua and Yuji Okumoto
Three Kung Fu prodigies have grown into washed-up, middle-aged men, now one kick away from pulling their hamstrings. But when their master is murdered, they must juggle their dead-end jobs, dad duties, and old grudges to avenge his death.
As teenagers, kung fu aficionados Danny, Hing, and Jim were inseparable, but drifted apart after graduation due to a mysterious fallout at an overseas tournament. Fast forward 25 years, and each has grown into a washed-up middle-aged man seemingly one kick away from pulling a hamstring—and not at all preoccupied with thoughts of martial arts or childhood best friends. But when their old master is murdered, the trio will reunite after decades of silence, soon learning that avenging their sifu will require conquering old grudges (and a dangerous hitman still armed with ample knee cartilage) if they are to honourably defend his legacy.
The Paper Tigers is a martial arts comedy-drama written and directed by Quoc Bao Tran, making his directorial feature debut. The film focuses on Danny, Hing, and Jim, who as teenagers were trained in the ways of gung fu through their master Sifu Cheung, but for some reason as they got older they drifted apart. Twenty-five years later, the trio are reunited after they learn that Sifu is dead, though Hing suspects foul play rather than believing he died of a heart attack.
I wasn’t aware of the backstory behind The Paper Tigers (which Quoc Bao Tran created the story for a decade ago) is that when Bao Tran was pitching it to Hollywood studios, they were basically looking to whitewash his intended vision by casting a well known white actor in the lead role (Bruce Willis being mentioned in the IMDb trivia page for the film). Rather than cave in, Bao Tran and producers on the project declined the offer and request, moving to crowd-funding and investment elsewhere to make it independently. Thankfully, they’re reaping the rewards for keeping with their vision because by going with no A-list name actors, there’s a certain charm and believability about following a trio of middle-aged men who were once great, athletic fighters, but have lost their edge and skills over the years due to other things in life getting in the way. The first ten minutes focuses on Danny, Hing and Jim as youngsters and in the short space of time not only do you feel the bond between the three of them, but you immediately know in how the fight sequences are shot that this is coming from someone who cares about showcasing the action, and it is well edited together by Kris Kristensen.
It’s interesting seeing how these young kids with the world at their feet end up in their older years, and learn about the reasons as to why they have been distant for so long. Alain Uy gives a very good lead performance as Danny, an insurance worker who is struggling to find time between his work and his son, and tries to avoid conflict as much as possible. Ron Yuan also gives a good performance and really appears to be having a good time playing the role of Hing, one of the Three Tigers who has a bad knee due to a work-related accident, and Mykel Shannon Jenkins is also really good as Jim, one of the three who still works in relation to fighting but in a gym capacity for BJJ, yet has lost his memory of the skills taught to him by Sifu Cheung. One of the supporting cast who makes a memorable impression is Matthew Page as Carter, an associate who was constantly beaten by Danny in fights as a teenager who now acts so smugly when he meets up with them again, constantly delivering fortune-cookie proverbs to them when they’re looking for straight-forward answers to their questions.
While I did enjoy the action and the chemistry between Uy, Yuan and Jenkins, the story beats are pretty formulaic, with some of the comedic elements not really working for me and there’s the sub-plot of Danny and his son which, at times is heartfelt, still feels like a hindrance on the main story. One of the characters I wish was developed more was the main villain, who comes in too late and I really wish I got to know more about him in the lead-up to the final act.
The Paper Tigers is a hidden gem of a film released this year filled with heart and some really well shot and choreographed fight sequences and the rapport between Alain Uy, Ron Yuan, and Mykel Shannon Jenkins works so well on screen. A promising feature debut from Quoc Bao Tran.