In The Paper Tigers, three middle-aged men reconnect after Sifu Cheung (Roger Yuan), the man who taught them kung-fu, is mysteriously murdered. Hing (Ron Yuan) has gained weight and lost hair. Danny (Alain Uy) is more committed to his career than his broken family. Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins) has moved on to MMA. Unspoken tensions tore them apart decades ago and make it difficult for them to work together to solve the mystery. Worse, Carter (Matthew Page), the man they used to bully with their superior martial arts skills, is now a Sifu himself with information that could help them solve the murder — or make him the prime suspect.
Writer-director Tran Quoc Bao set out to make an authentic film. When studios reportedly attempted to shove white lead actors (like Bruce Willis) into the film, they took to Kickstarter instead and raised the funds to make a martial-arts film with lead actors of color playing roles that would normally go to, well, someone like Bruce Willis, who would phone it in. Yuan, Uy and Jenkins are all great in their roles as men who are decidedly over-the-hill but still full of the spark that made them athletes in the first place.
Danny’s relationship with his son and search for meaning in his past forms the film’s emotional through-line. Despite Uy’s committed performance, that story isn’t baked quite well enough to feel fully cooked. Danny’s a jerk, and his decisions don’t really exonerate him, which feels somewhat disappointing when the credits roll. This is very much a film where the male role model finds meaning despite his responsibilities rather than becoming empowered by one.
But that’s a mild critique of the film as a whole because the story truly exists to scaffold the main attraction — a martial-arts movie about three middle-aged guys trying to keep up with much younger, faster and stronger opponents. And the fight scenes are particularly fun. These aren’t men reclaiming their old fighting styles but rather adapting them to their newfound physical reality. The fights feel fresh, innovative and clever.
The Paper Tigers is about teaching old dogs new tricks, and it is very much a movie that lives with that ethos at its very core. There are oodles of low-budget, direct-to-VOD action romps, but very few feel so well choreographed. As far as kung-fu movies are concerned, this is the real deal, made by a group of people who truly care about it.