The opening to The Paper Tigers, after a short tease of “present day”, has a lot of heavy lifting to do. It introduces us to three young, promising martial artists (“The Tigers” of the title), who are the sole students of an accomplished gung fu master. We see the complex relationship to martial arts, both a means of centering and guidance and…well, a means to feeling bad-ass. The Three Tigers are part heroes, part bully, as they have hot girls hanging on their arms and boast about “almost killing that guy.” They are on the cusp adulthood, and filled with both ambition and pride.
But we can’t last there forever, and when we catch up with our adult Tigers, we see where their lives have gotten them. Prime pupil Danny (Alian Uy) is a busy, divorced father struggling to balance his work and home life. Hing (Ron Yuan) still reminiscences on the past, when he isn’t complaining about his bad knee. And Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins) has traded his gung fu for the more aggressive (and profitable) Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Each has been separated from their glory days by time, to say nothing of growing apart from each other. But when their master dies under mysterious circumstances, they find themselves drawn back together to investigate the circumstances of his death.
At its heart, The Paper Tigers (the debut film from director Tran Quoc Bao) is about that tension of transitioning from the vigor of youth into the cynicism of adulthood, and keeping the necessary balance to not be overcome by either. And while it would be easy to fall into the easy trap of demonstrating either the foolishness of the former or the hardness of the latter, the film falls into a balance between the two, that responsibility must be balanced by optimism. It does that work through a tone that will be familiar with fans of family-friendly martial arts films of the 1980s and early 90s, though there are a handful of sequences that matures the tone above, say, Karate Kid for the younger viewers (Worth noting, as the rating disclaimer does, there is a scene that uses an infamous racial slur in a way that is both comedic and intentional, but still jarring.)
The center of the film is the relationship between the three stars, and luckily for it their camaraderie comes across as natural and real. They embody a sense of complicated kinship, three non-blood brothers who have shared lives, frustrations and a very specific experience. Their teasing and bickering all reads as genuine, both for their adult selves and the younger actors who appear mostly in VHSified home video backstory. Uy especially as the de-facto lead carries a lot of emotional weight that makes the core of the movie work.
In addition to that emotional grounding, Paper Tigers has a handful of martial arts sequences that occasionally pop up in a somewhat formulaic matter. Essentially whenever the investigation into their master’s death hits a dead-end, there is someone with more information that will require besting in a formalized martial arts contest. This is where the film most strongly reminds of The Karate Kid, where there are long stretches of emotional exploration that are interrupted by often one-on-one martial arts battles. These are all well choreographed, but also can be noticeably brief. This is often a movie about fighting, and the ethics and ethos around when and why we fight, than a movie that hyper-focuses on the fighting itself.
Beyond the core Tigers, the stand out cast member is Matthew Page as Carter, a former rival of the Tigers who has stayed in the gung fu life as they all dispersed, having surpassed them in both ambition and potentially skill. But his pride and outsized demeanor masks clear imposter syndrome that haunts him; it is a very funny, but also recognizably human performance.
The tone of Paper Tigers is tricky to unpack. On the one hand, it is intentionally throwback, with witty dialogue and an intentionally silly storyline that involves secret hitmen and rival martial arts gangs. But it is also attempting to address those tropes seriously, considering what happens to the star martial arts youth afterwards. This makes an immediate comparison to Netflix’s Cobra Kai very easy (especially with actor Yuji Okumoto being a producer for Tigers), but Cobra Kai centers the action and the impact of violence much more intentionally than this film. Cobra Kai is about disentangling trauma and owning your life; Paper Tigers by comparison is about remembering the lessons of youth and realizing what was always beneath the surface. Each reflect on the past with a critical eye, but the ultimate lesson Paper Tigers is that often it takes some actual living to realize the significance of what we learned when we were too bold to appreciate it.
The Paper Tigers comes out on Blu-Ray and DVD on June 22.