"The Paper Tigers" answers the burning question, "What if the Karate Kid got old and out of shape?" Well, middle-aged, but definitely rusty as hell.
Three teens receive private kung-fu training from bona fide master "Sifu" Cheng (Roger Yuan) and become the kings of the local martial-arts scene. On the brink of attaining widespread recognition, something splinters best friends Danny (Alain Uy), Hing (Ron Yuan) and Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins), and they part ways for decades. When Cheng is killed, the now-past-it schlubs put their differences aside to solve the crime — only to find that spinning hook kicks ain't so easy when you're 45 and haven't stretched.
Writer-director Tran Quoc Bao is a mentee of kung-fu great Corey Yuen; his clear love for the genre serves him well here. The action is expertly handled, always stemming from character. That's one of the vertebrae of the film: Each person fights a certain way, and the deterioration of the main characters' skills is sometimes hilarious. A fight is lost when a former badass appears to pull his groin on a move that used to be second nature.
That said, the fighting choreographed by Ken Quitugua is better — more compelling, entertaining and imaginative while being realistic — than in most straight action movies. There's no wire work here, or none that is obvious. No gravity-defying maneuvers. These are moves you might see in actual fights where some cats are as fast as lightning (and it gets a little bit frightening) … and other cats look ready for a nap.
The cast delivers, with Yuan's physical comedy particularly strong. As the trio's former nemesis, Matthew Page steals his scenes with 'roided-out intensity as a white guy much more steeped in Chinese culture than the main characters of Asian descent. Action director Quitugua is also a powerful, dominating presence, playing a deadly martial artist. He has mysteriously few credits but the makings of a star.
The film swings wildly from murder mystery to wacky comedy to family drama. But really, how unlike other action comedies such as "48 Hrs." or the later "Lethal Weapons" is that? Refreshingly, protagonist Danny is something of an immature jerk, infused with smart-mouth energy and good comic timing by Uy. How much he learns along the way is debatable, as his big message speech, delivered to his son, is essentially, "This is how you punch. Go punch people." That's a bit of an exaggeration, but it's an example of the things that make this indie unique and give it a voice.
The movie's fun, but it may have received a few too many kicks to the face, as there are massive unexplained gaps. At the end, many viewers will be saying, "That's it? But what about …? What happened when …?" If you can let that go, "Paper Tigers" may not be a deep comment on aging or friendship, but it has enough humor and action to make it worth a few rounds.
‘THE PAPER TIGERS’
Rated: PG-13, for some strong language, offensive slurs and violence
Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes
Playing: Starts May 7, in limited release where theaters are open; also available on VOD©2021 Los Angeles Times. Visit at latimes.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.