But the fight scenes, choreographed by action director Ken Quitugua, are good enough to make up for a lot of one-note jokes and often-recycled platitudes. “The Paper Tigers” isn’t exactly the most empowering action movie, but it’s heartwarming whenever it needs to be.
The best way to enjoy “The Paper Tigers” is to ignore most of its setup and focus on how character (and mood) is established through on-screen chemistry. Mainly because Bao’s characters are only so interesting to themselves. Danny (Uy) is an arrogant divorcee who answers calls at work instead of spending time with his sulky son Ed (Joziah Lagonoy). Hing (Yuan) is overweight and … well, that’s mostly for Hing. And Jim (Jenkins) is in good shape, but has forgotten his master’s lessons. Together, this trio – formerly known as the “Three Tigers” – come together to find Cheung’s killer. Their quest for answers doesn’t go as planned because, as you can imagine, Cheung’s assassin isn’t who Danny and his friends think.
Still, Danny and his pals take their time to get to where they inevitably need to go. They begin by training with a trio of crude but athletic young punk-asses who claim to be Sifu Cheung’s students. But how is that possible, protest Danny and his friends on the hill: Sifu Cheung only had three students. (“We could be a shame, but Sifu only had three disciples”) Times are changing, even though some devices die hard.
So Danny and his friends reunite, fight with each other, and even take on their teenage rival Carter (Matthew Page), who grew up to be a stereotypical territorial white man who also knows kung fu. Danny and his guys fight Carter as well, but only after exchanging a few weak trashy words (we get it, Hing is overweight). Although even that back and forth is more satisfying than Danny’s heart and the prolonged conversations with his impassive ex Caryn (Jae Suh Park). She scolds him in a first scene – “When you say you’re going to do something, do it” – then you can imagine how Danny’s domestic subplot ends.
Thankfully, life lessons are most often learned during the movie’s action scenes, all of which have a satisfying mini-narrative, and even some surprising twists. Bao characters are allowed to be imperfect and entertaining during these stopped pieces in a way their posture dialogue often does not allow. Even though Danny and his friends’ canned fight matches still go as you might expect, especially when Jim faces off against a young Asian American who is a little too impatient to use the ‘n’ word.