The term “paper tiger” is meant to describe someone or something that appears to be powerful on the surface, but is inwardly weak. It also fittingly describes the state of Hollywood’s action output, putting blinding spectacle over passionate craftsmanship. That’s why it’s incredibly ironic that a film titled The Paper Tigers is literally the inverse of its title and the major action film industry as a whole.
Quoc Bao Tran’s directorial debut forgoes a grand narrative and massive fight sequences and instead delivers on an intimate story of honor and respect. The Paper Tigers follows three washed up Gung-Fu prodigies, Danny (Alain Uy), Hing (Ron Yuan), and Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins), as they search to discover who murdered their old Sifu. The former martial arts masters are in for a shock as they realize that they’re not the limber experts they once were.
By following middle aged men through the world of Gung-Fu, it lends The Paper Tigers a comedic element that would be lost had it followed 3 twenty-somethings. Gags about being overweight and out of shape feel authentic to the circumstances the characters face and play well in the film. The audience hears every snap, crackle, and pop from Danny, Hung, and Jim’s aging physiques, giving the fight sequences a brutal tone without needing to resort to excessive blood and gore.
In fact, The Paper Tigers‘ fight sequences are filled with as much tension and excitement as an actual martial arts tournament. Every scene of action conducted throughout the film is done through Beimo, a one-on-one honorable fight (think a street version of The All Valley tournament in The Karate Kid). This allows to focus solely on two fighters at a time, limiting the need for excessive cuts. Even the staging of the start of each duel, with each fighter at the opposite ends of the screen, is well executed, seeming like an homage to 90s fighting games.
While many Hollywood action flicks are flashy on the surface, yet dull and unimaginative in their execution, The Paper Tigers is the exact opposite: It appears to be corny from the promotional materials, yet is unique and full of heart in reality. Maybe they should have called the film The Rock Pandas instead…
The Silver Lining
The scene in which The Tigers face off against their old rival, Tommy (Ray Hopper) is a perfect blend of The Paper Tigers‘ comedic and action-oriented tone. The tension builds as each tries to take down Tommy, who used to be the weakest link, but is now the leader of his old dojo. At the same time, humor is sprinkled throughout as Hung tweaks his leg or Jim surprisingly gets thrown off his feet by the padawan who has now become the master. This scene takes everything that is great about The Paper Tigers and stuffs it all into one special moment.
The Paper Tigers is available now to stream on Netflix!