The Paper Tigers is a Genuine Martial Arts Masterpiece (Review)

Aging Kung Fu prodigies come together in a fun action/comedy that manages to find humor and a ton of heart in an old-school martial arts style. 

I know I shouldn’t start this way, and make you read just a little bit more, but….I LOVE The Paper Tigers. It’s definitely one of the best films I’ve watched this year and something I continue to think about even several weeks (by now) after watching the screener. As a long time martial artist myself, so much about the film struck a personal chord with me, but it offers enough humor, action, and emotional moments that audiences without such a background will still have a blast with it. 

Directed By: Tran Quoc Bao
Written By: Tran Quoc Bao
Starring: Alain Uy, Ron Yuan, Mykel Shannon Jenkins
Release Date: In Theaters and On Demand May 7, 2021.

The film puts the focus on three Kung Fu practitioners: Danny, Hing, and Jim. They grew up together under the watchful eye of their Sifu (master), and were pretty much certified badasses known around their community, and other schools, as the Three Tigers.

Decades later, the trio have experienced a falling out, and now contend with middle-age and a host of other responsibilities. They’ve essentially left their life of Kung Fu behind, but when word comes that their Sifu was murdered, they find themselves reunited in their grief and a journey to discover the truth about what happened, while honoring his memory. 

Along the way, they find themselves once more thrust into the world of Kung Fu, battling street punks, rival masters, and even wrapped up in the mob. In order to honor their Sifu, they’ll have to set aside their differences and rediscover the passion that once brought them together as something like brothers. 

There’s a bit more that goes into the film, but I’m keeping it free from spoilers…even though there really isn’t much to spoil, it’s a fairly straightforward story, this is a fun one to go in fresh. Honestly, I went into this film having seen nothing of it, something that rarely seems to happen these days, and was blown away. 

In many ways, The Paper Tigers feels very much like a classic Kung Fu movie. Wayward disciples looking for vengeance against whoever dishonored their Sifu? Yeah, that’s pretty much straight out of any 70s Kung Fu movie. The homage isn’t accidental either, and it’s fun to see the film lean into those old-school tropes despite the modern setting. 

It’s hard to pinpoint any ONE thing that makes The Paper Tigers feel so special. Instead, it’s more a combination of elements working together to make something unique. The story itself, while relatively simple, is incredibly touching. There’s a great dynamic between the actors/characters that make the humor and emotional moments stand out and feel genuine. All the while, we’re given some amazing martial arts sequences that manage to stand up with any other action flick around.

It’s pretty much the total package and all of it works so beautifully together that I can’t help but want more. Seriously, one of my first thoughts after watching the film (one that still continues to poke at me), is that I’d LOVE to see a streaming service pick this up for a follow-up series. The interactions between all the characters is so genuine and engaging, I would love to see where they go next and how they choose to progress. 

I’ve spent the last few weeks trying to think of a good comparison for The Paper Tigers, and the closest I can think of is the original Karate Kid. Not necessarily in terms of the story or events, but the central themes and overall feeling of empowerment are there. You come away from the film feeling good about yourself and the events, hopeful even, and with a strong desire to do some martial arts.

It’s even more impressive considering how the film came to be in general. Director Bao Tran has been developing the idea for nearly a decade, but when they pitched the film to studios, they wanted to do away with the Asian leads/casting. Wanting to retain his dream, they ended up getting funding through Kickstarter, which prompted a new sponsor to step in to help make it come to fruition.

In just about every sense of the word, The Paper Tigers is a true indie film. It’s a pretty stunning accomplishment and the fact that it’s just damn amazing is a testament to the importance of diverse voices behind (and in front of) the camera.

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Editor-in-Chief: Writer and cartoonist who went to college for post-production, he now applies his love of drawing, movie analysis, filmmaking, video games, and martial arts into writing.