By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 8, 2021)
It’s been a while (like never) since I’ve seen a kickass Kickstarter-funded martial arts movie that was filmed in my back yard. Full disclosure: Writer-director Quoc Bao Tran’s The Paper Tigers wasn’t literally filmed in my back yard…but it was shot here in Seattle.
Tran subtly subverts Hollywood tropes by re-imagining The Karate Kid through the sensibilities of Chan is Missing in this tale of three friends, all former teenage kung fu champions now riddled with the baggage and creeping infirmities of middle age.
The one-time star of the trio is Danny (Alain Uy) a divorced suburban dad with a drudge office job that keeps him tethered to his cell phone, even when he is trying to enjoy quality time with his young son on weekends (his ex is not pleased). Wisecracking Hing (Ron Yuan) was specially trained in the arts of ancient Chinese healing but is now barely ambulatory due to an accident and subsisting on disability checks. Jim (Mykel Shannon Jenkins) is the most physically fit of the lot, but still suffers the odd pull, creak, or tweak.
The men have gone their separate ways in their adult lives. Danny and Hing have kept in touch, but Danny and Jim have not been on speaking terms since an incident that took place on the eve of a martial arts tournament the then-teenage trio was attending in Japan.
However, when they learn that the recent death of their beloved “sifu” (kung fu teacher) may have involved foul play, the trio decide to put aside differences, get the band back together and launch their own investigation to find the culprit and avenge (if applicable).
While that setup may sound cliché…well, it is. But what separates Tran’s film from most martial arts fare is its character development, gentle social commentary, smart (and frequently hilarious) dialog, and surprising warmth. Don’t despair, action fans…there are still plenty of fight scenes, all expertly choreographed and genuinely exciting to watch.
The three leads are appealing and have great chemistry. Even the “bad guys” of the piece are three-dimensional; particularly Danny’s long-time nemesis (played with aplomb by Matt Page (creator of the martial arts comedy web series “Enter The Dojo”). Frankly, I did not expect to enjoy The Paper Tigers so much, but I, erm…really got a kick out of it!
“The Paper Tigers” is now playing on various digital platforms.
There are “low budget” movies, and there are “no budget” movies. Not that it makes a difference in the quality of what ends up on screen; some of my all-time favorite films are low-budget or no-budget wonders. Sadly, In Action will not be joining them this evening.
Billed as an “action film” with tongue-in-cheek, In Action is predicated on a one-joke premise that its budget is so low (“How low is it, Johnny?”) that nearly all its “action” is implied, rather than shown…most of what you are watching onscreen is inaction (get it?).
What you are mostly seeing onscreen are the occasionally gore-spattered mugs of co-writer-director-stars Sean Kenealy and Eric Silvera, who play (wait for it) Sean and Eric, two aspiring filmmakers who are brainstorming on their screenplay for an action movie. When government spooks hack into their laptops and mistake their story treatment for a terrorist plot, Sean and Eric find themselves embroiled in a real-life action film (of sorts).
It’s a clever concept, with spurts of comic inspiration using animation, hand-drawn sketches and toys, but Kenealy and Silvera’s histrionic acting goes to “11” and sustains that level for the entire film (which feels much longer than its actual 79-minute run time). The expletive-laden dialog leans heavily on insult humor of the Kevin Smith variety, but somehow lacks the panache (the film is reminiscent of Clerks, except without the laughs).
To their credit, Kenealy and Silvera do fully commit to…whatever this is. There’s always the possibility that they are utilizing some post-ironic meta-SXSW hipster shtick that I’m too out-of-touch to “get” (e.g., I never “got” Mr. Show, despite co-workers half my age insisting that I’d laugh my ass off. I watched several episodes …completely stone-faced).
Yeah, maybe I’m gettin’ too old for this shit…
“In Action” will be available on various digital platforms May 11.