Movie review

Three solid performances anchor “The Paper Tigers.”

Alain Uy, Ron Yuan and Mykel Shannon Jenkins, playing three longtime Seattle friends currently on the outs, bring this microbudgeted (Kickstarter!) production to vivid life by virtue of their deeply empathetic performances.

Best buddies as teenagers when they trained as disciples of a revered kung fu master (Roger Yuan), they grew older, slower and apart in the 25 years since those glory days, when they enjoyed a degree of local renown as the Three Tigers.

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Nowadays, Uy’s character, Danny, is a workaholic insurance guy and the divorced father of a young son, Ed (Joziah Lagonoy). Yuan’s Hing is a one-time security guard now on disability and Jenkins’ Jim is a boxing trainer in a gym. This was not the future they envisioned.

When their mentor dies under suspicious circumstances in an alley in the Chinatown International District, they suspect he might have been murdered. So they band together to track down the killer and, in the process, rekindle the bond they lost over the intervening years.

Shot in pre-pandemic Seattle, the picture also stops at the downtown Cherry Street Coffee House, lingers on a view of the Smith Tower and, prominent in the background of the movie’s nighttime final fight scene, is the Seahawks’ lit-up Lumen Field.

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The portrait of friendship reestablished is developed in a series of quiet conversational scenes. The writing is nuanced and the actors play off each other with great subtlety. Those moments constitute the true heart of the picture more so than the episodes of well-choreographed kung fu fighting carefully positioned throughout the story by writer-director Bao Tran.

Born in Olympia and making his feature debut, Tran uses the fight scenes to highlight how the passage of time has eroded the trio’s skills. They get walloped a lot in a series of martial arts matches by adversaries ranging from three arrogant kung fu wannabes, who taunt them mercilessly and post their humiliations to social media, to a longtime rival named Carter (Matthew Page), who has taken up the mantle of mentor from their fallen master.

Back in the day, Danny used to literally put Carter’s head through walls in past bouts. Now it’s Carter flattening Danny. Turnabout, don’t you know.

But in the course of the thumpings, the three friends slowly, and painfully, start to shed the rust and regain something approaching their former form. And beyond that, they gain renewed appreciation of the spiritual essence of the martial arts.

“We defend the oppressed,” says Hing, likening the Tigers to the martial arts equivalent of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a claim that raises the eyebrows of his friends as being perhaps a little too over-the-top.

The movie thus has its messaging, but it also doesn’t take itself too seriously. Not when Carter zings Hing as “a fat, aging Mr. Rogers” and Hing returns the zing by miming an injection as perhaps being the source of Carter’s massive musculature. Steroids, anyone?

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A cynical observer sardonically swipes at Hing as “Kung Fu Panda.” It’s an acknowledgment that the movie is very much in the tradition of everything from that panda picture, with its lineage extending back to “The Karate Kid” and even further back to “Rocky.” Underdogs again must triumph after overcoming adversity.

“Tigers” fits comfortably into the template. It’s a fun, satisfying picture.

What makes it distinctive is the fact that its director and most of its cast are Asian. The quality of its performances (uniformly fine in even the minor roles) and Tran’s writing further make it stand out.

Uy’s Danny is the soft-spoken and sardonically realistic centerpiece of the trio, trying to navigate the difficulties of being a good dad and ex-husband. Yuan’s Hing handles the bulk of the comedy but also offers wistful reminders that, in the years of their separation, the other two never reached out to him to sustain their friendship. Jenkins’ Jim nurses a long-held grudge over Danny having let him down at a critical juncture in their past.

It’s Danny who articulates the essence of the kung fu ethos, as spoken by their late master: “Kung fu without honor is just fighting.” And that’s reinforced by Hing, who reminds them their mentor “taught us kung fu so we could become good, righteous men.” Living up to that is the challenge all three strive mightily to embrace.

The only significant flaw is Tran’s decision to set the climactic fight scene at night. It’s hard to see the action at several points.

With Alain Uy, Mykel Shannon Jenkins, Ron Yuan, Joziah Lagonoy, Roger Yuan, Matthew Page, Yuji Okumoto. Written and directed by Bao Tran. 108 minutes. Rated PG-13 for some strong language, offensive slurs and violence. Opens May 7 at Cinemark Lincoln Square and streams at Northwest Film Forum (nwfilmforum.org/films/paper-tigers-online) and other VOD platforms. 

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