As a man on the precipice of middle age who grew up watching flicks such as “The Karate Kid,” “Bloodsport” and “3 Ninjas” it feels as though Seattle-based rookie feature filmmaker Tran Quoc Bao’s “The Paper Tigers” (now available in select theaters and on VOD) was tailor-made for me.
Danny (Alain Uy from “True Detective” Season Two), Hing (Ron Yuan, late of the live action “Mulan”) and Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins, “Undisputed III: Redemption”) came of age in Seattle during the 1980s practicing kung fu under the tutelage of Sifu Cheung (Roger Yuan, older brother of Ron).
As the young men enter adulthood they cease training with their Sifu and grow apart. We flash forward 30 years. Danny, the most talented of the pupils, has become a cubicle drone who butts heads with his ex-wife Caryn (Jae Suh Park) over visitation of their son Ed (Joziah Lagonoy). Hing worked security guard gigs before falling from scaffolding leaving him with a bum knee. Jim has opened a boxing gym, but let his martial arts skills go by the wayside.
The men are brought back together when their Sifu is murdered. They harbor resentments towards one and another, but must attend the funeral together and more importantly discover who murdered their Master. Was it Danny’s old nemesis Carter (Matthew Page) or perhaps Sifu’s subsequent student Zhen Fan (Ken Quitugua)?
Admittedly, “The Paper Tigers” is cheesier than a fondue party in the great state of Wisconsin, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t get its hooks into me. It feels like a throwback to those action buddy comedies of the ‘80s and a stroll down memory lane for all of us karate kids out there weaned on martial arts cinema.
The fights themselves are simple and stripped-down, but they’re captured and edited clearly without the assistance of wire work or computer-generated imagery. Bao is a protégé of Hong Kong action director Corey Yuen (“No Retreat, No Surrender”) and proof of this is in the action pudding. He spent 10 years bringing his vision to the screen and was only able to do so through Kickstarter (appropriate for a karate movie) assistance. Bao’s low budget and enthusiasm are evident and the final product benefits from both.
As much as I enjoyed the fights, what really made “The Paper Tigers” resonate with me was its abundance of heart. I don’t know if this speaks to me being a sap or a meathead (honestly, it’s probably a bit of both), but a speech Danny gave to Ed late in the picture about the virtue of punching someone else in the face brought a tear to my eye.