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Burning Bright

Everyone loves tigers, save perhaps for those actually being mauled to death by them. Men like 'em because they're wild beasts; women like 'em cuz they're big kitty-cats. So whatever your point of interest, Two Brothers, starring a pair of tigers named Kumal and Sangha, is the perfect date movie. You can even bring the kids along, provided you don't object to a brief scene of tiger-humping.

Director Jean-Jacques Annaud certainly knows animals. He's probably best-known for directing The Bear, which depicted the adventures of a bear cub in the Canadian wilds. Many would say Annaud is better with critters than humans -- the bear cub in that film was way more expressive than Brad Pitt was in Seven Years in Tibet or Jude Law in Enemy at the Gates. Tigers don't have quite the same range as bears, nor can they stand on two legs for cute humanoid tricks, and that may be why Two Brothers' story is rounded out with a lot more people than were in The Bear.

Kumal and Sangha get above-the-title billing in this tale, despite the fact that the adult versions of each don't show up until about halfway through the film, replacing the numerous cubs that portray the brothers as kittens. There are lots of "Awwwww!" moments with the babies, especially in a sequence in which one is frightened by a civet and runs up a tree while the other comes to the rescue -- this scene will resurface later as a tiger flashback, the only moment that approximates the bear dreams and psychedelic mushroom hallucination in The Bear.

Guy Pearce plays Aidan McRory, a sort of real-world Indiana Jones who goes looking for valuable statues in jungles and makes off with them (the time period is nonspecific but is clearly within the Colonial period). When he's not stealing relics, he's writing books about his adventures, all of which make him out to be a bigger hero than he is. But he spends too much time in Thailand: Before long, the locals figure out exactly how they can exploit him, from a corrupt village chief (Jaran Phetjareon) who rats him out to the cops to the amusingly pompous French governor, Eugene Normandin (Jean-Claude Dreyfus, single-handedly proving that the French are as good at mocking themselves as anyone), who wants to enlist McRory's services to help make the local prince (Oanh Nguyen) look good in front of his wife (Stephanie Lagarde, who looks like Shelley Duvall dressed as the Wendy's hamburger girl).

So how do the tiger cubs get sucked up into all this? Basically, McRory shoots their father early on, then tentatively adopts Kumal only to lose him after a brief stay in jail. Kumal is bought by circus promoter Zerbino (Vincent Scarito) and his Ron Jeremy-look-alike sidekick, the fire-eating and sword-swallowing ringmaster Saladin (Moussa Maaskri).

Sangha, meanwhile, is discovered by Normandin's insufferably cutesy son Raoul (Freddie Highmore, thankfully not on screen very much) and adopted as a pet. Within the governor's household, Sangha feuds with the family dog, which at one point leads to a contrived sequence in which the animals push a shoe around under the dinner table in such a way as to make McRory think the governor's wife is playing footsie with him.

Anything more about the plot probably heads into severe spoiler territory, but suffice it to say that fate will bring the brothers together again, and you do get to see a cool tiger-on-tiger fight. (Disclaimer: Forcing animals to fight each other in real life is bad. But watching them on-screen, knowing in the back of your mind that no real animals were harmed, is badass. )

Annaud uses a mix of film and digital video, in part to avoid the headaches encountered while filming bears and realizing that film magazines tended to run out just when the bears started doing all the cool stuff. Digital video was probably necessary to capture such temperamental beasts as tigers, but it also detracts from the overall look. Especially in low light, the tigers move so fast that there tends to be a blurring effect. And fire never looks quite right on digital video, especially if it's being augmented with computer-generated flames. Too yellow.

No need to harp on that, though. Tigers are such rare and beautiful beasts that you could just film them running around an enclosure for an hour or so and I'd pay to see it. Annaud adds much more and has made a compelling story that's truly for the whole family, without being overly sentimental in the way that American so-called "family" fare tends to be. In a summer of few smart films appropriate for all ages, don't be surprised if Two Brothers does very well indeed. If it can also raise awareness of the danger of tiger extinction, so much the better.

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Luke Y. Thompson
Contact: Luke Y. Thompson

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