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Paper Tigers, The (2020)
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by Jay Seaver

"Looks easy but takes practice."
4 stars

SCREENED VIA THE 2020 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Just about everything about "The Paper Tigers" is mainstream cinema comfort food, but it's that sort of thing done pretty well: Yes, there are a lot of stock pieces in it, and they don't always fit together perfectly, but there's also good chemistry among the cast, not much wasted time, and a finale that delivers the goods without making the audience wish they'd had more of that stuff before. It's the sort of movie often dismissed for being predictable, although few filmmakers put it together as well as Quoc Bao Tran does here.

Twenty-five years ago, teenagers Danny, Hing, and Jim were big into kung fu, learning from a martial-arts master and practitioner of Chinese medicine who, rather than opening a school, taught those "Three Tigers" and worked as a cook. The friends had a falling-out soon after graduation and soon drifted apart, to the point where they learn that Sifu Cheung (Roger Yuan) has died just before the funeral. These days, Danny (Alain Uy) works for an insurance company and often disappoints son Eddie (Joziah Lagonoy) and ex-wife Caryn (Jae Suh Park) on the days he has custody; Hing (Ron Yuan) is limping and receiving workman's comp after a construction job left his knee messed up; and Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins) is teaching Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, his trips to Chinatown long in the past. And that would be that, except that Carter (Matthew Page), Danny's would-be rival back when they were teenagers who has stuck with martial arts in the meantime, suggests that this was something more than a heart attack, and Carter's teacher (Raymond Ma) doesn't exactly say his student is off-base.

Where things go from there isn't particularly surprising, but Tran's script is impressively assured in how it follows the template and not too pleased with itself for how it diverts from it. He's got enough confidence in his characters to hang out and wander up a blind alley or two and even kind of make what is more or less a way to kill some time as the audience gets to know the characters and to keep things from moving forward too quickly. He also doesn't feel particularly compelled to set things up in the obvious way, as he introduces Danny in the present by having him not even think of getting in a fight when he has a confrontation. He also recognizes that the film doesn't need to run on conflict between the protagonists or to make people villains who don't need to be.

Which is cool, because this is a fun cast to watch play off each other. Alain Uy is quick-witted and funny as Danny without seeming too glib, and plays very well off both Ron Yuan and Mykel Shannon Jenkins; the three do good work suggesting there is not-great history between the group but also make it believably fall away. Yuan does a really nice job of making Hing more intense from a relaxed position, though it's a bit surprising that Jenkins mostly remains a comic foil. Matthew Page hits an interesting spot as Carter - he's got to be both the white buffoon trying to be more Chinese than Danny and Hing but also actually good at a lot of things, and it's not often you see someone play both ridiculous and serious at once like this. He's not the villain, and Ken Quitugua winds up in a tough spot there; this isn't a movie with a whole lot of room for him to be larger than life.

Quitugua is also the action director, and the work that he and Tran do is pretty nifty - they can't just do great fight scenes, but have to do ones that are fun to watch even as it's clear that Danny, Hing, and even Jim are long out of practice. It's genuinely impressive work in using action for storytelling, and certain bits are especially well done. There's an early scene when Hing throws himself into a fight, enraged, that sells him being a factor despite his barely being able to move that doesn't feel like simple mind-over-matter. It builds well but never runs ahead of where these guys could be from where they started out.

It's one of those movies that seem like they should be a dime a dozen but aren't close to that common. It's funny, earnest, and doesn't stumble on the action, and one doesn't always get all three from an American movie in this genre.

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originally posted: 09/03/20 11:50:59
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Quoc Bao Tran

Written by
  Quoc Bao Tran

  Mykel Shannon Jenkins
  Roger Yuan
  Alain Uy

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