The Paper Tigers movie poster
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The Paper Tigers
The Paper Tigers movie poster

The Paper Tigers Movie Review

Funny, heartfelt, and well-choreographed, Bao Tran’s The Paper Tigers is an amusing homegrown kung fu film about three prodigies who seek vengeance for their former master’s murder, even though all three are now middle-aged losers who have largely lost the ability to fight.

The film contrasts nicely to many of the movies we’ve been subjected to in this strange, blockbuster-deprived year. There has been no shortage of movies in 2020, many of them with big names and big budgets (looking at you, Netflix), but in this fully streaming environment, it’s clear that quantity outweighs quality.

The Paper Tigers serves as a palate cleanser in this regard. Despite a presumably small budget, an indie cast, and an action plot that involves zero explosions, there’s something simply delightful about the experience Tran delivers in his feature-length debut. 

Tran, who also wrote the movie, delves into his characters before he gets to the story, an approach you typically don’t see in bigger budgeted films. While The Paper Tigers takes a little while to get going, the early foundations Tran builds through both his leads--Alain Uy, Ron Yuan, and Mykel Shannon Jenkins--and even his supporting cast, most notably Matthew Page as the delightfully douchey Carter--pays off in the long run.

Though I’ve followed Tran for some time--his short film Bookie blew me away back in 2008--I went into The Paper Tigers blind, knowing very little about it other than it “involved kung fu.” It struck me by surprise how funny the movie it is--while far from hilarious, Tran nails the perfect and difficult-to-achieve balance between humor and groundedness. The story, after all, is a serious one with serious ramifications, but the characters exist in our world, a relatable one with relatable personalities and lives. The Paper Tigers is a kung fu movie, yes, but it isn’t about crime syndicates or battling legions of unnamed henchmen, nor is it set in remote villages or rundown ports (yes, yes, my kung fu movie knowledge is limited)--it’s about three guys in Seattle (or wherever) who want to honor their master, and themselves.

And it’s obvious the cast and crew had fun making this movie. The cast has great chemistry with one another, and Uy serves as an energetic, likable, yet flawed protagonist. All three “Paper Tigers” deliver strong performances, playing off one another in a way that makes you believe they’re lifelong friends (or at least have a shared past). But the fun factor exudes from behind the camera, too, as no scene is too serious for a laugh or a strained hamstring.

As for the action, The Paper Tigers boast some strong sequences, though the story and the characters’ own limitations--one can barely walk, and another has largely forgotten his fighting skills--certainly don’t rival movies with a more hardcore plot. Nevertheless, the action gets better as it goes along, culminating in a surprisingly effective and believable climax that will leave you grinning from ear to ear.

The scope of The Paper Tigers may keep it from the upper echelons of its genre, but the heartfelt story and the way the cast and crew embrace it helps elevate it above other similar indie fare. Though not essential cinema, The Paper Tigers packs more than an empty roar.

Paper Tigers debuted at Fantasia Festival 2020. Thanks to Fantasia for letting me watch and review this film

Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.

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