[[Note: When "The Paper Tigers" releases in the U.S., it will largely be at indoor movie theaters during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. While the purpose of this review goes deeper than binary recommendation to discuss the film's merits as an artistic work in context of its time, we encourage our readers to continue exercising the latest safety guidelines from health authorities and consider them if and when you may decide to visit the cinema to watch this movie.]]
As well-meaning but also as stiff-jointed as its rusty kung fu disciples, “The Paper Tigers” brings martial arts into the realm of dadcore, sparking brief flashes of personality but ultimately overstretching a well-worn comedic gag of middle-aged dudes painfully overexerting themselves to the point that it cramps under unfocused aims. There’s potential to glimpse in writer-director Quoc Bao Tran’s feature debut, but he’s so keen on turning punches into punchlines in even the most consequential confrontations that it’s increasingly difficult to feel the weight behind his kicks of drama.
Not that there’s no opportunities for drama to rear its head, and for Alain Uy’s Danny to be swallowed up in it entirely. Danny’s got plenty going against him; he’s helpless as a joint-custody father, unfulfilled in his office job, and mysteriously estranged from his teenage buddies and fellow martial arts practitioners, whom “The Paper Tigers” introduces us to in an inspired opening credits sequence setting a dynamic energy the next 100ish minutes can’t hope to sustain. That’s partially due to a lack of storytelling momentum – an issue exacerbated by a classic case of weaving one too many plotlines into a story that’s better off with straightforward execution – and our confusion over whether Bao is honoring his film’s martial arts influences or spoofing them. “Kung fu without honor is just fighting,” Roger Yuan’s wise master Sifu teaches a younger Danny early on, and while the nice line sums up the movie’s surface-level sentiments, it also sets the reclamation of his character on a predictable trajectory 30 years later after Sifu has mysteriously died and old friends Hing and Jim re-enter Danny’s life now that he’s got some gray in his hair.
The reunion sets the stage for plenty of bickering and a few moments of genuine sincerity as the trio unravel an uninteresting mystery serving mostly as a narrative excuse for lengthy fight sequences that feel like they take up half the movie’s runtime. That might be all you need to hear if you’re fulfilled by the simple pleasures of watching out-of-shape has-beens yelp in pain as they give their physical abilities far more credit than they deserve, but seeing as that’s one of the only comedic notes the movie plays, it begins to ring dull before long. They also constrict any chance at innovation; because these scenes play primarily for laughs, there’s no urgency for Bao to make them any more thrilling than they are. The idea to mash up genres isn’t enough in a movie that promises more invention than it delivers, although there’s something clever in the unexplored dynamic of a white martial arts master and pseudo-antagonist who would look at home in a barbecue commercial clearly appropriating Asian culture at the same time as he’s totally bought into it. Fitting for a drama with conflicting identities.
And couldn’t more time have been given to deepening the relationship between Danny and his son, who “The Paper Tigers” seems to completely forget after 20 minutes? Obviously he will be brought back later to act as a sparkplug for Danny’s requisite self-improvement in an already convoluted third act, but it’s only because of Uy’s uniquely down-to-earth, everyman appeal – one of this movie’s reliable sources of charm – that the emotional climax doesn’t feel entirely unearned. “The Paper Tigers” is good for a chuckle and momentary swelling of the heart (and that might be enough for some!) but whatever commentary about duty to our loved ones and grace in barefisted battle it thinks it’s making is as flimsy as its title unintentionally suggests.
"The Paper Tigers" is rated PG-13 for some strong language, offensive slurs and violence. It's screening at some San Antonio theaters starting Friday.
Starring: Alain Uy, Roger Yuan, Ron Yuan, Mykel Shannon Jenkins
Directed by Quoc Bao Tran
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