By: John M Jerva
THE REVIEW: As a human being, getting old sucks but as a human being who is a martial artist, getting old can be downright implorable. There’s nothing that can prepare you for not being able to do the things were once were able to do and don’t even mention how your body turns on you. I should know as a 48 year old man who has been doing the arts for over 35 years now. I’m still able to move but I don’t fool myself and tell myself that I’m as good as I once was. It’s a fact of life and it can be mercilessly unforgiving to say the least.
This is probably why the new martial arts action-comedy The Paper Tigers spoke so loudly to me. Now I may have never faced a lethal assassin in my life but pretty much everything else was a page taken from my life. How do you grow old and still try to hold onto the things you hold dear. This is the outlying plotline to the new film from director Tran Quoc Biao . It is the story of three brothers in life who were the best of the best but now must grapple with the fact that Father Time has hit them with one vicious roundhouse kick.
The Paper Tigers stars Alain Uy (Helstrom) as Danny, Ron Yuan (Mulan) as Hing and Mykel Shannon Jenkins (Undisputed 3: Redemption) as Jim and they are the three tigers who were the private students to Sifu Cheung (Roger Yuan). As the film opens, we are treated to various camcorder recordings showing the three disciples in their prime as they were undefeatable in any fight. There are many scenes of the three taking it to the competition and they did it with arrogance and finesse. They were young and just like most epople in their prime, they felt full on untiuchable.
Fast forward to the present day and our three heroes are much older now and their bodies are rapidly breaking down as they are but a small measure of who they used to be. Time has been their worst enemy and the only opponent that they could not defeat. They also have lost touch with each other after having a falling out years ago but that all changes when their Sifu dies under mysterious circumstances. Out to find out what really happened, the three tigers unite to investigate his death and discover that all is not what it seems. Now they must take on opponents from all sides including themselves and hopefully they can figure out the truth before they pull a massive hamstring in the process.
The Paper Tigers comes from the mind of indie filmmaker Tran Quoc Biao who first conceived of the idea as a short story called The Challenger. Now, Tran has been able to fully realize his vision as a feature film and he has been able to craft a story that is an almost perfect blend of bone smashing martial arts fight action combined with laugh out loud comedy and heartfelt drama. At first glance, one would assume that this is a standard martial arts revenge picture but once you start to view it, you find out real quick that there are more layers to this film than are in an onion. Sure there’s the revenge factor coupled with expertly crafted fight sequences but during its 108 minute running time, there is so much more to enjoy. It’s pretty much come for the Kung Fu but stay for everything else.
The biggest reason that the movie works so well is the chemistry of the three main actors. Uy, Yuan and Jenkins have almost perfect chemistry with each other and there is a lot of time spent on the development of their characters which makes you care even more for them. The three stars work so well off each other that you’d think they’ve starred together in numerous projects. They also tackle the comedy in the movie with no fear and come out victorious as there are numerous scenes where I laughed out loud because I knew where they were comig from. There is ample jokes about how old they are now and how they’re unable to do 90 percent of what they were used to and their timing is spot on.
Tran is able to juggle each aspect of the plot and he spends just the right time on each element which is no easy feat. In the hands of other filmmakers, the results might have not been as stellar but here, Tran has given us an indie instant classic that could give a lot of the bigger budgeted films a huge run for their money. All three actors have no problem laughing at themselves and go all in when it comes to the jokes.
On another note, there is a great amount of heartfelt drama to add to the mix with Uy essentially being the heart and soul of the movie. He’s a man who has failed at his marriage, at life and is seriously failing as a father so his story arc gives the film its essence. Uy’s Danny, or Danny Eight Hands as he was known, spends most of the film getting pummeled and just when you think he had nothing left, he is able to pull it all together in the end when the time comes to stand up and do what’s right.
Yuan and Jenkins also have their moments with Yuan’s Hing trying desperately to hold onto past glory and Jenkins’ Jim forsaking his traditional Kung Fu training in favor of an easy paycheck brought on by the more current MMA wave that has taken over. All three men have lost their way but come together in the end for their Sifu and their own friendship which gives the audience a very moral driven outcome.
Now, of course, The Paper Tigers is a martial arts film at its core and even though there isn’t wall to wall fisticuffs, that makes what there is even more special. Tran gives us a love letter to films of old right down to the soundtrack which resembles a Shaw Brothrs film and gives us a homage to the glorious fight flicks of the 70’s. The fight choreography on display is authentic and mesmerizing and all the participants involved bring their collective A game to the proceedings. The action is shot clearly and cleanly with no choppy editing or fast cuts. Tran allows us to see the fists and feet fly with total respect for the genre and the actors involved and fans will certainly get their fill from the onscreen empty handed brawls that generate both excitement and a few laughs at the same time. There’s nothing like seeing one of our fearless protagonists throw a spinning kick only to fall to the ground in pain when his muscles betray him.
If one would mention flaws, the one big blemish I had with it was the character of Carter played by Matthew Page. I got what they were trying to do with his character but he just felt like one, giant aykward punchline and while some of his scenes did illicit some laughs, I just felt he was out of place for a movie like this. He was just like one big stereotype and he was probably the most unsympathetic character in the whole movie. Page does an admirable job with what he’s give but in the end, Carter falls flat to the canvas.
Over all, The Paper Tigers is a rare film that is able to blend different genres and give the audience a smart, funny movie about getting older and facing your regrets. Everything balances out just right and most of the success is due to Uy, Yuan and Jenkins. They are the ones we have to be vested in so if they don’t work, the movie doesn’t work. This is a film that leads you to believe it’s one thing but then does a complete 180 and delivers so much more. It’s funny, exciting, touching and it’s a winner plain and simple. The storyline is something that most of us can relate to and martial artists will really get the most out of what it has to say. Like I said earlier in the review…come for the Kung Fu but stay for everything else that it gives you. The Paper Tigers is definitely one of my favorite films of the year so far and it’s one that deserves the biggest audience possible.