I often found myself rolling my eyes with amusement and embarrassment as watching “The Paper Tigers”, a little martial arts flick which is alternatively corny and funny in winning ways. Cheerfully moving back and forth between comedy and drama along with its three aged heroes, the movie generates some good laughs from how silly and pathetic they really are, but their story is presented enough gravitas and sincerity in the process, and you may come to root for them more while still laughing for their clumsy quest toward honor and redemption.
After the opening scene showing the death of some old martial arts teacher on a night alley, the following montage sequence, which mainly consists of old video clips, promptly establishes the old past between him and his three pupils. In the late 1980s, his pupils were just little young kids, but they diligently practiced kung fu under their teacher’s generous teaching, and they soon became quite confident as they got bigger, faster, and stronger during next several years. When one of them was later invited to Japan, it was certainly a high point for him and his two fellow students, but, for some reason, that later led to his breakup with his teacher as well as his two fellow students.
At present, Danny (Alain Uy) looks older and meeker compared to that glorious adolescent period of his in the past, and we see how things have been pretty disappointing in his life. As a recently divorced father, he tries his best when he is about to spend a weekend along with his little son, but then he only finds himself busily handling his latest work to do instead, and that certainly disappoints not only his son but also his ex-wife, who understandably wonders whether it was really right to agree with him on joint custody.
Meanwhile, Danny is approached by Hing (Ron Yuan), one of the two fellow student whom he has not seen that often since their old time. Hing notifies to him that their old teacher died a few days ago, and he and Danny subsequently go together to their teacher’s funeral, though it has been more than 10 years since they saw their teacher for the last time. At the funeral, they certainly feel awkward and embarrassed as entering a world from which they walked away a long time ago, and they are also not so pleased to see that their old competitor, who was more or less than a punching bag for them during that time, is now a deadly serious marital arts teacher who is going to succeed his teacher someday.
Anyway, Danny and Hing come to learn that there is something suspicious about their teacher’s death. While it looks like he died due to some heart problem, the surrounding circumstance suggests that he was actually killed by someone, and Danny and Hing’s suspicion is increased more when the funeral happens to be disrupted by a trio of crude young lads who may know something about the death of Danny and Hing’s teacher.
Danny and Hing eventually decide to delve into this suspicious matter for themselves, but, needless to say, they are not so physically fit in addition to being over 40 at least, so they decide to reach to Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins), the third member of their martial arts team who is now working as a mixed martial arts training coach. Although he still does not forget what caused their breakup at that time, Jim eventually agrees to join his old friends because, well, he still respects their teacher as before.
Of course, our three guys stumble a lot right from the beginning as your average mismatched team, and we accordingly get a series of absurd comic moments as they attempt to confront several other figures in the story one by one. While Danny and Hing are soon reminded that they are not young anymore, Jim turns out to be not as dependable as he seems at first, and there is a hilarious moment when he becomes a little scared as he forgets how to present himself formally before his fight begins.
It is not much of a spoiler to tell you that these three guys gradually come to get their respective groove back, and director/co-writer/co-producer Tran Quoc Bao and his crew members do not disappoint us as serving us with several enjoyable fight scenes along the story. Although nobody in the film reaches to the level of, say, Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan, the fight scenes in the movie are delivered well with enough physical impact and comic effect under their plain presentation, and it is clear that Bao and his crew and cast members had lots of fun together as making these entertaining moments.
Unfortunately, Bao’s screenplay begins to lose its balance during the third act where our three heroes finally encounter the final opponent in their bumpy quest, and it does not recover from that at all. While that final opponent in question is rather bland and forgettable in my inconsequential opinion, the eventual showdown between that figure and our three heroes is relatively less funny and exciting due to the lack of surprise, and I observed that with decreasing interest as duly waiting for the expected feel-good ending.
In conclusion, “The Paper Tigers” is not without flaws, and I wish it pushed its story and characters harder for more fun and laugh, but I still appreciate the sincere efforts from Bao and his cast and crew members. Despite apparently limited by its low production budget, their overall result is competent on the whole, and it is certainly recommendable to you if you enjoyed martial arts flicks such as “Enter the Drago” (1973) or “The Karate Kid” (1984).