Well, isn’t this just adorable?
“The Paper Tigers” is a martial arts action comedy filled with punch-ups, knock-outs, insults and one-liners. Well-acted, with actors who know how to throw a kick and land a punch — and a punchline — stuntman and editor turned writer-director Quoc Bao Tran has made a debut feature that tells a tired “avenge our master’s death” tale with real comic flair.
In the “Karate Kid” ’80s, the three star students of Sifu Cheung (Roger Yuan) dominated their corner of American martial arts. Danny “Eight Hands,” Hing and Jim — seen in vintage videos — mixed it up, won tourneys and were constantly beating down white boy challenger Carter.
They were “The Three Tigers,” not mere students but “disciples” destined to take over Cheung’s dojo. But when the old man is killed by an unseen master, those days are decades past. Even Danny “Eight Hands,” whose fists were so furious they blurred and looked like he had extra appendages, has mellowed into a post-divorce minivan.
Danny (Alain Uy of “The Passage” and “True Detective”) has snow on the roof and little in the way of muscle mass. He’s all about “walking away” from trouble, something he imparts to his son, who stays with him on weekends. A confrontation in a parking lot opens him up to an Asian slur.
“Can’t you PARK?”
“Can’t park. Can’t drive. Can’t help it.”
But when his fellow “Tiger” Hing (Ron Yuan of “Mulan” and “Marco Polo”) shows up, he’s shamed into joining him for the funeral. Running into the their old nemesis Carter (Matthew Page of “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” and TV’s “Enter the Dojo”) sets the tone for “Paper Tigers.”
To Danny — “You look skinny. You sick?”
To Hing — “You look like a fat, Asian Mister Rogers!”
The two “Tigers” are wheezing and limping and out of shape. But the hint that their Sifu might have been killed and not died of a heart attack forces them to track down their estranged third Tiger Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins of TV’s “The Rich and the Ruthless”). He runs his own school, has branched out into Brazilian jiu-jitsu, so at least he’s in shape.
As they slowly (pace and “urgency” are a real problem with the movie) get on with hunting for answers about what “really happened” to their beloved teacher, at least Jim won’t let down the side as they get into “knock-out” contests with assorted “punks” and rivals as a way of discovering the truth.
Damned convenient, these pauses for brawls.
The fights have a grand cotillion formality to them — bows and flexes as every fighter takes his position.
The jokes are of a “Kung Fu Panda” vs. “Kung Fu Sanford” thing.
Tran has the most fun with Yuan’s character — whose toupee makes for quite the martial arts dust-up sight gag — and with Page’s “more Chinese than you” cultural appropriating doofus.
“If you asked me…” “Which I DIDN’T.” “If I were YOU…” “Which you are NOT.“
Carter is forever trotting out “As the Chinese say,” and then offering some bit of sage advice that might have come from a fortune cookie — and delivering it in CHINESE.
The humor moves the picture along, which truthfully starts VERY slowly thanks to an overlong “Tigers in the ’80s” prologue. But Tran’s screenplay problem-solving is first rate, foreshadowing via a trip to the gym how they might find out how killed their Sifu.
“Find the one that hits the hardest.” That won’t be a visual clue. “Listen” for how the blows sound when they land.
The same goes for the movie itself. These “Paper Tigers” cover mostly familiar ground, but do it with rusty moans and groans of pain, and with laughs — some of them damned adorable.
MPA Rating: PG-13 for some strong language, offensive slurs, and violence
Cast: Alan Uy, Mykel Shannon Jenkins, Ron Yuan, Roger Yuan, Raymond Ma, Andy Le and Matthew Page
Credits: Scripted and directed by Quoc Bao Tran. A Well Go USA release.
Running time: 1:48