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The Paper Tigers: Kung Fu caper punches above its weight

If The Paper Tigers sometimes feels familiar, there are enough idiosyncrasies in both the characters and script to keep you on your toes, writes Graeme Virtue.

Crackerjack timing is vital in martial arts brawls and likeable kung fu caper The Paper Tigers has come along at an especially opportune moment.

The till-ringing achievements of Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings – a Marvel superhero movie with a predominantly Asian cast that easily surpassed estimates at the global box office – has demonstrated that there is an appetite for films that combine beat-em-up action with humour and heart.

The ground has also been prepared by the runaway success of Netflix hit Cobra Kai, the unashamedly nostalgic sequel series that channels the against-the-odds spirit of the original Karate Kid movies but adds its own midlife-crisis spin.

Cobra Kai season four will not launch until December but The Paper Tigers functions as an excellent stopgap, since it similarly revolves around sad-sack middle-aged dudes trying to reclaim past glories.

The central trio of Danny (Alain Uy), Hing (Ron Yuan) and Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins) are childhood friends in Seattle who trained under a firm-but-fair master – or “sifu” – named Cheung.

After dedicating themselves to the most honourable principles of kung fu, the so-called “Three Tigers” ended up drifting apart when they failed to roll with the punches of adulthood. It is only when Cheung is found dead in an alley decades later that they reunite.

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Danny, originally the most naturally gifted of the Tigers, is now a stressed insurance man who actively avoids conflict, particularly with his exasperated ex-wife and son. Hing has retained his convivial 1990s teen spirit but has put on a few pounds (and a slightly dodgy toupee).

The towering Jim still looks fit but has swapped Cheung’s philosophical teachings for the teeth-gritted world of mixed martial arts. After a rocky reconciliation, the three vow to find out the truth about what happened to their sifu even if it means battling their way through some of the sketchier corners of Seattle’s fighting scene.

The periodic battles see the Tigers nervously face off against disrespectful youngsters keen to claim their legacy plus a formerly ineffective rival who has spent the past 25 years honing his skills.

But mostly this is a story about growing old, analysing why your life did not turn out as you hoped and figuring out how to move forward anyway.

Middle-aged men – and it always seems to be men – trying and failing to recapture their youthful mojo has been a recurring cinematic theme, from City Slickers toThe World’s End.

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But even if The Paper Tigers sometimes feels familiar, there are enough idiosyncrasies in both the characters and how the script explores loyalty friendship to keep you on your toes. It’s not just a low-budget Old School with roundhouse kicks: there is a genuine warmth and wit here.

A long-gestating passion project for writer-director Quoc Bao Tran, The Paper Tigers was initially funded with the help of a crowdfunding campaign. That the end result punches so far above its weight is genuinely impressive. But then, who doesn’t love an underdog story?

Four out of Five Stars

Available on digital from September 24

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