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Strong performances, choreography elevate simple story of ‘Tigers’

Danny, Hing and Jim are aging martial-arts fighters whose once-legendary status is preserved in their nickname, “the Paper Tigers.” Struggling to settle into middle age, ordinary careers, divorced parenthood (Danny) and a good deal of unresolved guilt, the three must put aside long-standing resentments when their former master (or “sifu”) dies in suspicious circumstances.

That is the rather old-fashioned plot of the rather old-fashioned “Paper Tigers,” a 2020 crowd-pleaser now airing on Netflix.

The well-received indie — widely praised by both critics and viewers — takes this simple story and imbues it with considerable charm, thanks to excellent performances, heartfelt themes, terrifically choreographed fight scenes and a good deal of gentle comedy from the foibles of its footsore heroes — one of whom wears a leg-brace and can barely walk.

Chief among the movie’s strengths is that these three crumbling warriors never become the sort of corny movie underdogs who, despite age and debility, instantly open several cans of whooping on unwitting young antagonists.

Nope: We feel every crunchy chop and kick — and the Tigers realistically lose most of their first six bouts. Danny, meanwhile, works to teach his pre-teen son that fighting is not a wise solution — though their moving final phone-talk hedges this with a potent injunction to defend the weak … and a helpful lesson on how to make a fist.

In the titular roles, Alain Uy, Mykel Shannon Jenkins and Ron Yuan (who put on nearly 70 pounds for his paunchy middle-aged doctor) are all superb, with excellent support from Joziah Lagonoy as Danny’s son and Matthew Page as a former Tiger nemesis who isn’t nearly such a jerk as he seems.

In seeking funds, director Tran Quoc Bao and his team stoutly resisted studio insistence that the film be cast with Caucasian leads (i.e., Bruce Willis and Nic Cage), eventually raising $124,000 in crowdfunding plus plenty of additional monies, including some from a donor who’d studied under Bruce Lee.

Fittingly then, the film is a loving throwback to the martial-arts hits of the 1970s. Its fights are notably pared-down and precise, telegraphing every blow and drop of sweat. My only complaint is that I couldn’t straighten out what happened with the “poison fingers” at the end of the final match, even after watching it a second time.

But that does not detract from a film that is admirably low-key, with an emphasis on the moral backbone of martial arts — as summed up in Sifu Cheung’s oft-repeated mantra: “Kung-fu without honor is just fighting.”

So there’s plenty of honor here, even in failure; and while the film clearly targets Baby Boomers, that’s a great message for all ages.

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