The Paper Tigers is an exceedingly pleasant film. In a time when most people are looking for movies that are “awesome” and “mind-blowing,” “pleasant” might sound like an underwhelming adjective. Rest assured, I mean it in the best way possible. This movie made me relax. I forgot about everything else going on while I watched it. There were times when I laughed and even more when I smiled. The fact that it doesn't even try to be awesome or mind-blowing was a welcome change of pace. Sometimes you just need a movie that wraps you up like a warm hug. It's that kind of picture.
The story centers on three middle-aged friends: Danny (Alain Uy), Hing (Ron Yuan), and Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins). As teens, they all studied martial arts under their “Sifu.” When he's murdered, they decide to team up to find the guilty party. Several obstacles stand in their way. Danny is already a distracted father, to his ex-wife's dismay. Hing has a knee injury. Their skills are rusty. A sense of duty propels them forward anyway, to the amusement of their old rival Carter (Matthew Page), who now teaches.
The “you killed my _____, so now I must avenge them” plot has fueled many a martial arts flick over the decades. The Paper Tigers isn't the hard-hitting revenge story you might expect, though. In fact, one could go so far as to say that the depiction of their efforts to find the killer is mild. The movie is far more interested in being a study of friendship. Our three heroes were once inseparable, bound together in their commitment to Kung Fu. Then their lives went in different directions. Sifu's passing provides a reason to reunite. Finding that common ground at this stage takes some effort.
The Paper Tigers is very lighthearted. Interactions between the three friends are often humorous, as are the ways they grapple with the toll their age has taken on their abilities. Uy, Yuan, and Jenkins work up good chemistry together, making it feel like the guys really have known each other most of their lives. There are also some funny confrontations with Carter, as they take delight in deflating his pomposity.
The martial arts scenes are staged well – not too violent, yet authentic enough to earn our investment. Director Quoc Bao Tran is smart enough to stay out of his own way. By that, I mean that he doesn't feel the need to over-shoot or over-edit them to be epically cinematic. Taking that approach allows the intermittent brawls to seem like events that are actually happening to the characters, as opposed to bits that call attention to themselves. They integrate into the story naturally, and often with a wink.
Viewers looking for a hardcore martial arts punch-and-kick-fest probably won't get what they seek here. The Paper Tigers is an ode to friendship, to the things that tie us to our childhood pals. Kung Fu just happens to be the unifying factor for these characters. Watching them kick-start their camaraderie makes for two hours of feel-good fun.
out of four
The Paper Tigers is rated PG-13 for some strong language, offensive slurs, and violence. The running time is 1 hour and 50 minutes.