Paper Tigers

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Ron Yuan, Alain Uy and Mykel Shannon Jenkins as The Three Tigers
"Bao Tran is as creative with his characters' weaknesses as with their strengths." | Photo: Mark Malijan

Did you play a sport as a kid? Do you still play it now? No matter how much they enjoy themselves, no matter how hard they're initially willing to work, most people drop out. That's true even when what they're doing goes beyond physical training, when it's about a commitment to a way of life. Danny (Alain Uy) and Hing (Ron Yuan) haven't practised martial arts for years. They're middle aged, out of shape and out of the habit of solving their problems with action. But when their old sifu (Roger Yuan) dies and they suspect that he's been murdered, they track down old pal Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins) to become the Three Tigers once more and set off in pursuit of justice.

A popular choice at Fantasia 2020, Bao Tran's lively d├ębut feature balances martial arts and comedy with a side order of philosophy. We follow our three erstwhile heroes as they revisit their old school, now run by former rival Carter (Matthew Page), a white guy who spits out Chinese proverbs like a fortune cookie machine and is much better at fighting than he deserves to be. Winning his respect is hard - still harder a challenge match with three teenagers who want to steal their title - but there's no backing out if they want to find out what happened to their sifu. Of course, doing so may land them in still deeper trouble.

As you might expect, failing to practise for a couple of decades doesn't exactly lead to great fighting skills, but director Bao Tran is as creative with his characters' weaknesses as with their strengths (and has also chosen his performers well so that they look out of shape but can still pull off the moves required of them and can deliver as actors). There's comedy in the errors as in many a film about young martial artists first learning the ropes. We also see how the men's knowledge of technique comes to their aid despite their lack of fitness, as they gradually recover their flexibility, and the fight scenes are nicely designed to accommodate the characters' different circumstances. Yuan, who sparkles when it come to the comedy scenes, works around Hing having an injured leg in endlessly creative ways, whilst Jenkins brings together their old fighting style with the new one his character has studied since.

All of this makes for fights that are continually inventive and entertaining. There's also some traditional kung fu from Page, who is amazing to watch despite the kind of heavy build that often presents a disadvantage, as well as from the shadowy figure whom the Tigers come to suspect was involved in their sifu's death. The stakes vary from personal pride to survival and the mood shifts accordingly. Meanwhile, Danny finds himself thrust into the role of his teacher when his son starts getting into fights, his instinct to protect the kid running up against the fact that the kid is developing his own sense of honour and there's a good reason why he's chosen to do what he's done.

The film's lighthearted comedy doesn't always fit well with the darkness of its central plot hook so in places the film is uneven, and the ending doesn't bear the emotional weight of what has gone before, but these are minor issues in what is otherwise a well constructed piece of work. It's a natural crowd pleaser with cross-generational appeal, delivering on the action but with a warm heart.

Reviewed on: 09 Sep 2020
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Three kung fu prodigies have grown into washed-up, middle-aged men, now one kick away from pulling their hamstrings. But when their master is murdered, they must juggle their dead-end jobs, dad duties, and old grudges to avenge his death.

Director: Quoc Bao Tran

Writer: Quoc Bao Tran

Starring: Alain Uy, Ron Yuan, Raymond Ma, Mykel Shannon Jenkins, Matthew Page, Yuji Okumoto, Yoshi Sudarso

Year: 2020

Runtime: 108 minutes

Country: US

Festivals:

Fantasia 2020

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