The Paper Tigers review – martial arts team reunites in likable comedy

Quoc Bao Tran, a promising film-maker whose previous work includes editing and action coordination, makes his writing-directing debut with this highly likable if formulaic action comedy about three middle-aged guys reunited when their old martial-arts master dies suddenly. The word on the internet is that Tran has been trying to get backing to make this for years, but the Hollywood studios he approached wanted him to whitewash it by casting at least one famous Caucasian actor. But Tran insisted on having the core trio played by two Asian Americans and one Black American and raised the budget partly through crowdfunding. The fact that none of the stars are huge names, and look just like schlubby dudes you might see on your street, makes this all the more accessible as a story about men who were once great athletes but have let their skills rust over a bit over the years.

A montage of scratchy videotape footage with timecodes dating the material to the 1980s establishes the once-close friendship between ace fighter Danny, speccy scrapper Hing, and smooth talker Jim. The three of them are the only disciples of Sifu Cheung (Roger Yuan), a master of gung fu (not kung fu, the characters insist elsewhere), who trains the kids on paint-can equipment in his garage when he’s not working as a chef in a local Chinese restaurant. In the present day the Three Tigers, as they were known, have drifted apart. Danny (Alain Uy, soulful) works in insurance and is struggling to cope with being a part-time father to his young son. Hing (familiar character actor and film director Ron Yuan, delightful) has got a little stout. Only Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins) still works in sports, as coach at a local gym. Meeting up again at their sifu’s funeral, an associate from old days (Matthew Page, hilarious as a smug white guy dispensing fortune-cookie proverbs in Cantonese) suggests that maybe sifu didn’t die of a heart attack, and maybe he took on another disciple after they left.

Tran adroitly layers the fight sequences, filmed with fluidity and at least substantially performed by the main actors themselves, between frothy layers of blokey banter. It’s not without its corny moments, especially the subplot concerning Danny’s relationship with his son and ex-wife, but that’s forgivable.