Grade:  B-
Action comedy-drama
Rated PG-13

If your family loved Cobra Kai—or even The Karate Kid films that preceded the popular TV series—and you’re looking for another martial arts offering that balances medium-intensity action, drama, and humor, you might consider The Paper Tigers. Yuji Okumoto, who appeared in the second Karate Kid film and also Cobra Kai, was the film’s producer.

This English-language 2020 martial arts film from director Quoc Bao Tran is as much in the tradition of old-guys-proving-they’ve-still-got-it tradition of films like Space Cowboys (2000) and Old Dogs (2009) as it is the kung fu movies. But don’t fear, younger viewers, there’s young martial arts action too. It’s just that the focus is on three middle-aged men whose bodies have seen better days. In other words, this isn’t your typical Asian martial arts film, though it does have an almost obligatory memorable fight scene.

The Paper Tigers features three likable guys who are just that: guys. Too many martial arts films are all action with nothing but paper characters—kung fu wizards who do little more than kick, block, and punch their way through every scene. The heroes of this film are Everymen, real flesh-and-blood people who just happen to have bonded in the youth when they were “The Three Tigers,” as their master dubbed them. One of the characters happens to be African American and the other two Asian American, but all three are treated as people because “at the end of the day, we wanted to tell a fun, entertaining story that depicted our experience honestly,” Tran told the media.

One character, like Scott Calvin in The Santa Clause, is a marginalized dad who’s just trying to stay relevant in the life of his son. Another has moved comfortably beyond the life they once had together and is just fine with who he is, while the third has a body that’s in training for an upcoming season of My 600-Pound Life.

The plot is pretty straightforward. After their old master is murdered, Danny (Alain Uy as Danny Eight Hands, the former leader of The Three Tigers), and his best-friend Hing (Ron Yuan) reunite with Jim, the only one who still kept up with his kung fu and works as a trainer. All three are shown in flashbacks with younger actors portraying them so we can develop an appreciation for the relationships they once had. Seeing their lives now and then ought to be of interest to young viewers as well as older ones, because what young person doesn’t wonder at least once what their life will be like in the future, and what older person doesn’t look back? If at its heart The Paper Tigers feels a bit like Stand by Me—a nostalgic look back at the best friends we had when we were young and the things that bonded us—maybe it’s because Tran said the idea for the film came from his own experiences with friends who studied martial arts with him.

This is Tran’s directorial debut, and he does a nice job of balancing the drama and comedy and handling the action scenes. Some dialogue-heavy scenes might go on a bit too long and some reaction shots might also linger too much. Clichés also creep in, like the sneering no-nonsense rival of the Tigers or the disgraced martial arts student who seeks revenge, but Tran’s focus on the humanity and averageness of his characters wins out.  If you’re interested, now’s the time to check it out. As of today it was 40 percent off at Amazon: $17.90 instead of $29.98.

Entire family:  No
Run time:  111 min. Color
Aspect ratio:  16×9 widescreen
Featured audio:  DTS HDMA 5.1
Studio/Distributor:  Well Go USA
Bonus features:  C+
Trailer
Amazon link
Rated PG-13 for some strong language, offensive slurs, and violence

Language: 3/10—A smattering a cursing, including several f-bombs and the worst of all: the n-word, hurled in insult

Sex:  1/10—At a urinal one man looks at another, played for laughs and with nothing shown

Violence:  5/10—Medium intensity sequences of hand-to-hand combat, with comparatively little blood

Adult situations:  4/10—Brief realistic scenes that briefly feature smoking and drinking, but no drunkenness

Takeaway:  This is that rare martial arts movie about average guys, not fantastic superheroes who seem to exist in a world apart from our everyday reality