While occasionally rough around the edges, the charming indie kung-fu comedy The Paper Tigers from first time feature director Tran Quoc Bao has enough heart to make you forgive some of the narrative shortcomings. In a week where a viewing of Drunken Master II left me in a martial arts daze, the transition over to The Paper Tigers offers up an experience closer to a gentler Cobra Kai with an eye towards the Shaw Brothers. Nearly right off the bat you get a glimpse of the titular “Three Tigers” in their prime through low-res VHS footage. The wise Sifu Cheung (Roger Yuan) has taken on three sworn disciples in the form of young Danny, Hing and Jim. As they learn more about the real tenets of “gung fu”, you can see their reverence for their sifu grow – even if they view the rest of life as a joke. These three are virtually inseparable as they combat the ills of the world with finely choreographed altercations. They are so skilled they even get invited to compete in Japan, but it is initially left a mystery as to what happened here.
Cut to the present and suddenly 25 years have passed since the Three Tigers have even seen one another or Sifu Cheung. Danny (Alain Uy), the undefeated star prodigy of the trio, has long given up his place as the successor of his sifu in favor of a fractured marriage and a career as an insurance agent. The once-mighty Danny is now a fairly meek, sarcastic guy who is failing as much on the father front as he is as a husband. Although he has good intentions, he is a consistent source of disappointment to both his son (Joziah Lagonoy) and his ex-wife (Jae Suh Park) with his tendency to prioritize work over everything else. He is only shaken out of his midlife doldrums upon the return of Hing (Ron Yuan), now with quite a bit of added weight, a hair piece that is not fooling anyone, and a busted knee that crackles so much that you think someone is shaking a can of rocks. The final limb of the trio, Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins), is in much better shape physically – look at those biceps! – but he has long forgotten his kung fu training in favor of his role as a trainer of young, black athletes at a local gym.
The reunion is unfortunately not completely a happy one, and not only because Danny and Jim had a mysterious falling out all those years ago in Japan. Sifu Cheung has unfortunately passed, but the death does present enough red flags that the trio feel it is worth investigating the cause. What follows is a series of violent and hilarious altercations that build up to an eventual villain who does not quite live up to the innovative nature of the remainder of the film. The chasm between who the Three Tigers used to be and their lives now leaves room for healthy doses of hilarity as well as some poignant reflections on growing older. An early showdown in an abandoned pool with some young “thugs” offers up some of the film’s best moments of action and humor. Choreographer Ken Quitugua (also appearing on screen) makes you feel every hit to the face and kick to the chest while pushing up against the limits of the PG-13 rating. These fights are not the most complex you will ever see due to where the characters are in their lives, but they are staged perfectly to suit the scenario.
The heart and humor of the film comes from the believable chemistry from the trio of Tigers. Even with some buried animosity, there is an easy camaraderie that returns quickly upon their reunion. Their bodies may not be the same, but emotionally they are very much right back to their youth. The narrative is lended something a little special by virtue of the fact that this bond is between three people of color. Even if race is touched on sparingly, it informs the DNA of this film in a way that cannot be underestimated. This may be an occasionally silly movie about aging kung-fu fighters, but there is a rich cultural background that Tran Quoc Bao purposefully imbues the movie with to make sure audiences are laughing at the right things for the right reasons. This may be best represented by childhood foe turned local sifu Carter (Matthew Page with big Jason Jones in The Detour energy). Carter is a hilariously misguided instructor clearly appropriating certain sayings while verbally sparring with the trio, but it is all done with a knowing intention that adds to the ridiculousness of the situation.
The film unfolds in a fairly predictable manner until it culminates to one final confrontation that brings all of the different themes and relationships into line in a satisfying manner. These are characters that you enjoy following, so even when the film runs about fifteen minutes too long you are not too upset about it. The film could have been a ninety minute movie without missing much, but these are the types of lessons you expect a director to learn on their first full-length feature. The Paper Tigers is a fun and hard-hitting world that is very welcoming while also providing a heartfelt message that gives the narrative a little extra weight. It is not perfect, but is stronger than a lot of debut films. This crowd pleaser is worth your time.
The Paper Tigers comes to Blu-Ray with a gorgeous AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 1.85:1. This film has some nice pops of color with everything appearing very natural from the lush landscapes to the vivid hues in the production design. The color palette mostly remains natural with a stark eye towards some darker tones. Where the transfer really shines is the impressive level of detail in even the subtlest aspects. Everything from the smallest facial details to the texture of the interior of the restaurant is quite impressive. The picture is mostly clear with only brief instances of murkiness during a few darker scenes. Black levels are admirable but could stand to be a bit deeper. Skin tones are natural throughout with some impeccable details present in certain shots. The film sports some luscious cinematography, and that is showcased pretty well here. Overall, this is quite a powerful transfer.
The film comes with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track that is purposefully not showy and well balanced to match the dialogue-driven nature of the feature. Dialogue comes through crisp and clear without being overwhelmed by any of the other sounds. Environmental and sound effects play a substantial role in the film, such as the landing of a punch, and this track brings these elements to life quite capably. The use of the rear channels to create a fully enveloping world works quite well. The directionality is quite precise so sounds always present as natural when coming from their respective points. Activity in the low end delivers quite a jolt during a few particular points, but overall power is an infrequent part of the presentation. Well Go USA has delivered a pleasing track for this hard-hitting and hilarious film.
- Behind The Scenes
- A Look Behind The Film: A ten-minute featurette in which the cast and crew discuss the themes of the film, how they relate to aspects of the story, how the film differs from other martial arts films, giving actors of color a time to shine and more.
- Tai Tung Restaurant: A two-minute piece that takes a look at a restaurant that we would like to visit ASAP.
- Production Design: A minute-long conversation with Production Designer Wing Lee in which he discusses the look of the film.
- Deleted Scenes: A collection of 24 minutes of unused material including more scenes of the guys when they were young, Danny talking to his ex-wife, Jim’s personal life and more. These scenes are presented in a mostly unfinished form because you often get to hear the director yelling “cut” and see the actors going in and out of character.
- Bloopers: Eight minutes of flubbed lines, ruined takes, alternate lines and more that add quite a bit of fun to the disc.
- Trailer: The two-and-a-half minute trailer is provided here.
The Paper Tigers is a really enjoyable feature directorial debut that taps into the poignant nature of aging while offering big laughs and some bone-crunching fight scenes. The trio of main performers do a really excellent job of bringing these characters to life. The film could have been streamlined a bit more, but that does not take away all of the things it does right in this charming narrative. Well Go USA has delivered a Blu-Ray with a strong A/V presentation and a pleasing array of supplemental features. If you are looking for a heartfelt comedy with a few scenes of bone-crunching goodness, look no further. Recommended
The Paper Tigers is currently available to purchase on Blu-Ray and DVD.
Note: Images presented in this review are not reflective of the image quality of the Blu-Ray.
Disclaimer: Well Go USA Entertainment has supplied a copy of this disc free of charge for review purposes. All opinions in this review are the honest reactions of the author.
Dillon is most comfortable sitting around in a theatre all day watching both big budget and independent movies.