With only a couple of clicks of the dial and a little dash of hybrid vigor, the hackneyed can be made fresh again, a point proven by Tran Quoc Bao’s silly and special little kung fu comedy “The Paper Tigers.” Balancing the naive structure of an old Shaw Brothers movie (a vengeance mission with an escalating series of fights en route to the Big Boss showdown) with the kind of male-midlife-comedy schtick that bought Judd Apatow a house or six, Tran’s irresistibly good-humored debut is a diverting blend of Hong Kong and Hollywood that delivers, on a slender, Kickstarter-enhanced budget, a rousing roundhouse hug to both traditions.
Danny (Alain Uy), Hing (Ron Yuan) and Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins) have become estranged in the 25 years since they were “The Three Tigers,” disciples of kung fu master Sifu Cheung (Roger Yuan) — scenes that play out with younger actors in lovingly re-created garage VHS footage. The ebullient Hing, trained in the arcane healing arts, now sports extra padding, a toupee and a busted knee. Jim, as a trainer, has remained in peak condition — his rippling biceps are on gratifying display in a selection of sleeveless tees — but has forgotten the specifics of his kung fu training. And Danny, the “undefeated” prodigy and Cheung’s anointed successor, has turned his back on his talents entirely. Now a meek insurance agent who constantly disappoints his son (Joziah Lagonoy) and his ex-wife (Jae Suh Park) by prioritizing work over fatherly hang time, his later-life “walk away” philosophy looks less like nobility and more like defeatism.
Then they learn of their sifu’s questionable death, and, egged on by their steroidally enhanced former nemesis Carter (Matthew Page, bringing excellent deadpan-lummox energy), the trio reunite to investigate. This obviously means having to progress through a whole bunch of beimo challenges against fitter and more vicious opponents, culminating in villain Zhen Fan (Ken Quitugua, also fight choreographer). Somehow, the stakes remain high enough while staying well inside the bounds of PG-13 violence, and if that means the fights are not the most spectacular you’ll ever see, it also gives the wit of their execution — abetted by Kris Kristensen’s nimble editing and Shaun Mayor’s pleasing photography — room to flourish.
Just as it’s unusual to see martial arts heroes in 40-something men whose biggest battles are with hair loss, creaky joints and divorced co-parenting, so it’s refreshing that this Apatovian threesome is non-white, yet their interactions nonetheless reflect the kind of mainstream-Americana upbringing that ethnic minority characters are rarely depicted as having enjoyed. The collective pool of pop-culture references encompasses “The Karate Kid” and TV’s “Kung Fu” of course, but quips about “Magnum PI” and “Sanford and Son” also zip by, and the early-’90s signifiers in the home-video sequences are spot-on — viz teenage Jim in a Soundgarden T-shirt accessorized with the exact hairdo and chain from The Rock’s infamous bumbag photo.
The three leads summon lovely chemistry, re-creating a dorky-kid dynamic in later life that feels like the perfect summation of the film’s almost Spielbergian belief that at 10 years of age we are our best and truest selves. Only here, it’s given added resonance that these formative friendships are between two Asians and a Black kid, whose racial differences are neither allowed to take center stage nor entirely ignored.
Which is not to suggest “The Paper Tigers” is overly concerned with right-on-ness. There’s an elision of Asian cultures throughout — the first group of “punk kids” the oldsters have to fight are put down as both “K-pop rejects” and “sushi lovers.” And while Carter elicits eyerolls every time he delivers some vaguely Confucian aphorism, it’s not wholly clear whether that’s because Danny himself is supposed to be Chinese-American (he does correct the pronunciation of “kung fu” to the more authentic “gung fu”) or whether it’s simply a reaction to the terminally white Carter’s try-hardism.
That vagueness is probably a wise choice, given the writer-director’s Vietnamese background and a cast that is variously Filipino, Korean and so on, and the film generates such goodwill that one can even see a kind of progressivism in so affectionate a portrayal of Asian Americanness, and to a lesser degree African Americanness, as hazily similar, pan-American identities.
Beyond that, “The Paper Tigers” has some gentle insights into the passage of time (though the parallel with Danny’s ability to slow time through meditation could use development) but mostly concerns itself with the question: Do you lose your kung fu when you get old, or do you get old when you lose your kung fu? And the answer comes with a charming dose of optimism that if old dogs can’t learn new tricks, aging “tigers” might still, somewhere deep down, retain all the old ones.