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With: Alain Uy, Ron Yuan, Mykel Shannon Jenkins, Jae Suh Park, Joziah Lagonoy, Roger Yuan, La'tevin Alexander, Matthew Page, Yuji Okumoto, Yoshi Sudarso
Written by: Tran Quoc Bao
Directed by: Tran Quoc Bao
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some strong language, offensive slurs, and violence
Running Time: 110
Date: 05/07/2021

The Paper Tigers (2021)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Believe the Stripes

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

A ragtag, nearly homemade action comedy, this cheerful, lovable movie dances very close to creaky old martial arts and "old guy" movie cliches, but deftly evades them with sheer spirit and gumption.

Martial arts master Sifu Cheung (Roger Yuan) trains three young disciples who, by 1993, show great promise. But in the present day, Danny (Alain Uy) has become an insurance salesman and a neglectful divorced dad who practices "turn the other cheek," overweight Hing (Ron Yuan) has a lasting knee injury from a construction job, and Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins) teaches boxing, but no longer remembers his "gung fu" training.

When their Sifu dies mysteriously, the estranged trio re-unite, and — spurred on by their old nemesis Carter (Matthew Page) — try to find the potential murderer. But the old friends must quickly sharpen their rusty skills to face off against the deadly "poison fingers" technique — a move that only their Sifu knew.

A feature writing and directing debut for Tran Quoc Bao, The Paper Tigers starts a little shabbily, with a clunky-looking scene of Sifu's murder that doesn't inspire much confidence. A VHS-style flashback showing the trio's training is fun, and then things pick up as the perfectly cast Uy (True Detective), Yuan (Mulan), and Jenkins (The Bold and the Beautiful), pick things up with their strong, diverse chemistry.

The movie tries to pack in several messages, i.e. about the importance of spending time with family rather than work, not solving problems with violence, etc., but it also contains some subtler, darker themes about cultural appropriation. Specifically, the Carter character is a prime example of a white man who liberally and shamelessly borrows from Chinese culture for his own benefit.

Otherwise, while the movie's jokes are a little old-fashioned — such as Hing losing his toupee during a fight — they're mostly innocuous. The fight scenes, however, are constantly surprising. There's never any telling just how any one fight will turn out. In the end, The Paper Tigers is more of a love tap than a knockout punch, but it works.

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