“A wry and observant character-driven comedy that has the fixtures of an action movie wrapped around it.”
by Ken Bakely
First and foremost, Tran Quoc Buo’s The Paper Tigers is a hangout movie – a wry and observant character-driven comedy that has the fixtures of an action movie wrapped around it. The nature of this pairing and how they interact is specific to why it works and what makes it so charming and entertaining – a manic, frenzied setup is played against low-boil humor and camaraderie, with the film’s subtle messaging found somewhere in the balance. Tran’s script features three middle-aged men – Danny (Alain Uy), Hing (Ron Yuan), and Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins) – who, in their youths, were close-knit kung fu students, training under Sifu Cheung (Roger Yuan), before the three fell out. As time has gone on, only Jim has incorporated the practice into his livelihood, as a trainer. The other two are, let’s say, rusty: Danny is a dispassionate, divorced insurance agent locked in a custody dispute over his son, while Hing has gradually fallen out of shape and walks with a limp. However, the group – once known as the Three Tigers – is tentatively drawn back together after Cheung’s sudden death. While all evidence points to a heart attack, Hing believes that something doesn’t quite add up about the circumstances, and sure enough, they discover that he was poisoned.
If what transpires as they investigate the killing seems a little more vague or imprecise in comparison to their own interactions, it doesn’t really matter very much. In fact, the movie is often at its most cumbersome when trying too conscientiously to nail down the finer details of its plotting. It’s not that it doesn’t matter at all, but The Paper Tigers has nothing if it doesn’t have the moment-to-moment joys of watching these characters try to navigate this fraught but strange situation. It’s funny and observant about their struggles to match up to the spry physicality and the driven dynamism of their youth, while never feeling like they, or the story they’re in, is being short-changed on the wayside. Tran doesn’t pretend that some neat, clean teaming-up will result here, where the mystery will be solved in perfect timing. If anything, the looseness of the plot’s beats emphasizes that Danny, Hing, and Jim are on a journey for closure as much as they are for justice, and the notes within might not play in perfect harmony.
Tran directs with a scrappy confidence, and his cast deftly navigates the deceptive nuances of the breezy script – alongside the three leads, Matthew Page has a wonderfully over-the-top supporting turn as Carter, another ex-student of Sifu Cheung who has become a glowering dojo owner who bewilders the others by often insisting on speaking fluent Chinese that they do not understand, just one aspect of his self-conscious, self-seriousness; Tran and Page let this blatantly silly person exist with his eccentricities without ever feeling like the movie must shift to meet him. And when the action does arrive, the film’s fight scenes are staged with real resourcefulness and precision, no matter the age of those doing the fighting. Yes, it feels like everything is going on here – maybe sometimes to its detriment – but far more often as a sign of how closely and carefully Tran has imagined and realized his film. With breezy pacing, The Paper Tigers considers friendship, identity, and dignity with an effervescent touch, and from both its comic rapport and complex characterization comes something thoughtful and warm.