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A Good Day to Die Hard (2013)

A Good Day to Die Hard

In the original Die Hard, John McClane (Bruce Willis) confronted a terrorist and essentially destroyed a high-class office block storey by storey. We then moved up a notch in the stakes and destroyed an airport. Then we got to blow up bits of New York in outings three and four. A Good Day to Die Hard (2013) decides America has seen enough damage caused by John McClane and he’s unleashed on to an unsuspecting Moscow which is having one of its internal power struggles, this time between Komarov (Sebastian Koch) and Chagarin (Sergei Kolesnikov). For these purposes, the McClane family is also fractured. I can’t think why but John and son, Jack McClane (Jai Courtney), don’t get on. Anyway number one son has been arrested and John thinks he’d better go and restore ties. Which is why he happens to be in Moscow when the shit hits the fan. Komarov is taken out of jail with Jack (can’t think how the CIA managed to arrange that) and they are transported to the court house for trial. Bombs go off demolishing the outer wall and the inner courtroom so Jack and Komarov escape only to be delayed by John who isn’t in in the CIA plot (after all these years, John still doesn’t have a CIA mole to report on his son). As a result, the planned extraction has to be put on hold and Jack heads for the safe house pursued by one of these unstoppable armored troop carriers that literally lets nothing stand in its way. If you asked for an explanation of where the production budget went, it was on cars to smash up in this interminable opening chase sequence. Oh and Russians care so little for their city they fire RPGs on the streets without fear of the consequences. I must have missed the memo identifying Moscow as the centre for criminal activity with the most unresponsive police force in the world.

Bruce Willis and Jai Courtney

Bruce Willis and Jai Courtney

 

So then the safe house ain’t so safe and before you can say Jack (Robinson) McClane, gun-toting bad guys are breaking in and they are running out. This gives John a chance to bond with Komarov. They have errant children in common and for all there will be bullets and explosions, this is to be a family values film with broken families mended by the time we reach the end. So where are we with the action (obviously there’s no point in discussing the plot because the only consistent truth about it is that, if it moves, crash into it and/or shoot it). Well, we have our team infiltrate a delightful ballroom which is then shot to pieces by the gunmen and an impressive helicopter gunship — never let it be said the Russians do anything by half. If RPGs are not doing enough damage, you can really let rip with the canons on this whirlybird. The increasingly obvious flaw in all this is that the McClane brand has endowed him with new superhuman invulnerability. In the good old days when he was fighting terrorists in the Nakatomi Building, he rapidly ended up looking as if he’d been through a shredder. You could see bits of him dropping off as the film inched forward. This time, he’s been in multiple car crashes, people have shot at him (with an RPG no less) and now our family duo jump blindly out of a window on the top floor of a tall building. Yes, I understand there’s a helicopter making a nuisance of itself, but it’s stretching what little credibility was left by having them not even pause to have a look down before jumping. “No!” “Look. We can make it if. . .” There could have been funny lines. Well, I jest of course. But they just smash through some scaffolding boards. People are doing essential repair work on this side of the building and there’s one of these tubular systems for getting rubble from the top to the bottom. And they just get out and walk away.

Sebastian Koch

Sebastian Koch

 

At this point, I’m in two minds as to whether I’m watching a Die Hard film or one of the one-person shooter video games. Die Hard used to be all about McClane taking on a “crazed” terrorist and triumphantly shouting “yippee-ki-yay” over this enemy’s prone body at the end (notice the tastelessness of the poster in referring to Russia where the producers hope to do a lot of business). It was a contest which took its time to establish who everyone was and then let the battle commence. Since John landed in Moscow (why did he go anyway? was he planning a jail break even though he can’t speak a word of Russian?) he’s taken part in a demolition derby and shot numerous bad guys. There’s no substantive villain set up as a counterbalance to John McClane’s improbable durability. If you go back to the original, where would we have been without Alan Rickman‘s magnificent Hans Gruber?

 

As it is, the scenes of bonding between the McClanes are just embarrassingly bad. The action just grinds to a halt. Except sooner or later it has to start again and this time we’re off to sunny Chernobyl (where the radiation sun never sets unless it’s sprayed with magic juice) and we can stage the big shootout to save the world from all the weapons-grade uranium the Russian bad guys have stashed there. Terrorists of the world unite, you can have as many dirty bombs as you need to dispose of the running hyenas of capitalism. So there you have it. This is a film lacking all focus. There’s no clearly defined villain we can boo and hiss at. We’re all over the map in Moscow (one of the fastest growing audiences for foreign films), ending up 400 or so miles away in a deserted factory site that could have been anywhere. Sometimes you can just close your mind down and enjoy dumb action, but not even that works here because the three major set-piece action sequences grow progressively more silly. A Good Day to Die Hard represents a new low in the franchise with Bruce Willis almost relegated to sidekick for Jai Courtney (who’s he?). It almost goes against the grain to call an action film dull and boring, but this qualifies in spades.

 

Snitch (2013)

Snitch

So, in Snitch (2013), we have John Matthews (Dwayne Johnson), the model Dad. He’s one of these great caring people who, when he sees a new employee working late, stops to help move sacks around. His only mistake in life so far has been to get divorced and give the custody of his son, Jason Collins (Rafi Gavron), to his ex, Sylvie Collins (Melina Kanakaredes). For whatever reason, his son has had nothing to do with his father. This lack of a father’s guiding hand leads to an act of extreme stupidity in which he agrees to hold a small mountain of pills for a friend. Needless to say, this is a set-up and the DEA swoop as soon as the drugs are through the door. This paragon of stupidity is now looking at a minimum of ten year’s jail time. America has some really weird laws which have mandatory sentences based on the quantity of drugs held, but there’s chance for a reduction in that sentence if the accused co-operates with the authorities to ensnare others higher up in the distribution chain. Given the potential to take eight years off his sentence, the dimwit claims he cannot become a snitch. In the jail visiting telephone chat, we get all the guilt-tripping. If only I’d been a better Dad and had you in my life. I cared too much about my business to push the issue of joint custody. If I’d been a better son and not hated you for going off to live in a big house and leave Mom and me in a rundown neighbourhood. . . Yawn!

Faced with this spectacularly unfair law, superDad decides to volunteer his own services as a snitch in his son’s place. Not surprisingly, this is not how the law is supposed to work. Bending the rules requires the approval of DA Joanne Keeghan (Susan Sarandon). Law officials tasked with the enforcement of these laws are, by definition, not bleeding hearts. So Keeghan’s response is entirely rational. If superDad comes up with an airtight arrest of someone with intent to distribute not less than half-a-kilo of coke, his son gets remission. But the risk is all his. Obviously he’s not a trained police officer and the idea of a naive do-gooder going undercover to infiltrate a drug distribution cartel is a high-risk activity even at the best of times. Nevertheless, for the love of his son, he decides to explore options. As the boss of a construction company, he employs ex-cons. Perhaps someone can point him in the right direction.

Dwayne Johnson not looking so tough

Dwayne Johnson not looking so tough

Right so let’s pause here. Dimwit son agreed to break the law and got busted. Great, so he’s a criminal. He refuses to entrap any of his friends. Great, so he’s got a vague grasp of morality and feels he should not roll on someone he thinks is innocent just to shave years off his sentence. So even though superDad has remarried and has a new child to love, he decides he will act as the snitch. But to achieve the aim of excusing his criminal son, he has to get one or more ex-cons to give up their contacts or involve themselves in further criminal activity and risk jail. For the ex-cons superDad involves, this is not the same as acting as a paid informer for the police. SuperDad is inciting these ex-criminals to become criminals again. He starts a “partnership” with Daniel James (Jon Bernthal) who is married and trying to rebuild his life in difficult circumstances. Just talking to him is a conspiracy and exposes this man to the risk of jail. Yet this conversation gets our hero as far as Malik (Michael K. Williams). The DA is moved to offer a reduction to one year if superDad can bring him in. A concerned DEA officer Cooper (Barry Pepper) sets superDad up with a wire and sits in the background as an advisor. Later he warns superDad about the DA. She can be a little forgetful on the detail of the deals she makes. So our hero ends up being introduced to Juan Carlos “El Topa” Pintera (Benjamin Bratt) and, after a set-piece chase, we get to the end.

Susan Sarandon and Barry Pepper considering their options

Susan Sarandon and Barry Pepper considering their options

In a way this is the film in which the ex-wrestler gets to show whether he can act. Interestingly he may be physically the biggest man in the room on several occasions, but he’s not there to fight. Playing against type, he’s there to look scared but determined. There’s some plausibility to his story that life in the construction industry can’t pay the bills in these difficult economic times. Whether that would force a respectable businessman to start transporting wholesale quantities of drugs is another matter. Frankly I found the first half of the film to be deadly dull. I’m not doubting the narrative necessity of each element of the story as shown, but the pace is leaden. Even when we get on to the road in his truck, it’s not that much better. It’s a long drive. When the action does come, it somehow failed to engage my interest. It’s not that the situations are without tension. I just didn’t care whether this hero succeeded. Nothing in the set-up seems to justify any of this. I’m not denying this is a terrible law and our hero is being ruthlessly exploited by a DA with a political agenda, but our hero is doing all this for a worthless son. I might have had more sympathy if our hero had been forced into this because he was a victim. But none of this life-and-death extravagance is credible.

The ultimate outcome is also a real pain. The hero and his ex-wife are the happiest ex-couple I’ve ever seen, while our hero has effectively destroyed his new family’s life as his business is gone and they must go into witness protection. I really don’t think that’s going to be a long-term marriage. There’s actually a good story here waiting to be told. If the DA and the undercover cop had sat down with our hero to plan an operation, we could have built up a tense drama. As it is, the parts created for Susan Sarandon and Barry Peeper are woefully underwritten. This would also have put proper legal protection in place for Jon Bernthal as the man seduced back to his criminal ways. The longer term criminals are classic stereotypes and boringly predictable. Not even the acting of Dwayne Johnson can save the film because he’s been given silly things to say and do. Overall, Snitch is a ghastly tragedy of everyone on the production side missing opportunities to make a good film.

Olympus Has Fallen (2013)

Olympus Has Fallen

Olympus Has Fallen (2013) starts with Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), our hero, and the President (Aaron Eckhart) practising their boxing before the First Family sets off for a fund-raising bash. This establishes that neither of them know how to fight for real and that the President is a good sport, not minding too much if an underling hits him in the mouth. Then it’s off into the snow and ice for the excitement of a midnight dip and a tragedy to reset the First Family’s dynamic. As is then required, eighteen months pass and the tensions rise on the Korean peninsula — this is a coincidence, of course, not cause and effect. Even to my jaded ears, Gerard Butler’s attempt at an American accent sounds unconvincing. He’s even less convincing as a lover and he’s definite not a model employee — the President has transferred him because he can’t stand seeing the men who were there on that night or perhaps he just can’t stand hearing the accent mangled. Whatever the reason, he’s all whiney and depressed. The opening sequence is slow-moving and, not to put too fine a point on it, boring.

Gerard Butler

Gerard Butler

 

Finally the pace begins to pick up with a low-flying plane coming into restricted airspace while a convoy of vehicles brings the South Korean Prime Minister through the streets and into the White House. Then the plane shoots down the two jets sent to intercept and starts shooting at targets around the White House. This spooks the President into his bunker, thoughtfully taking the visiting South Korean team with him even though it’s “against protocol”. Films like this would just die if people did what they are supposed to do. The attack on the ground then gets more systematic as tourists suddenly turn into commandos. Amazingly, it takes Gerard Butler almost thirty-five minutes to fight his way into the White House and the rest of the film to get back out again. The only note of originality during this attack is the use of Washington sanitation vehicles as covert armored vehicles. Needless to say, all the permanent guards and secret service agents are mown down as the White House falls into enemy hands. Uncharacteristically, the US Army turns up too late to do anything. They’re usually more gung-ho than this. When Kang (Rick Yune) the leader of this Korean strike force, confirms he’s holding the President hostage, this is a low moment for America and the music plays like a funeral march as international hubris is rewarded with local failure. Fortunately Gerard Butler is scrabbling around in the dark looking for the President’s son. The result is inevitable. We then come to the McGuffin. Every film worth its salt has to have a device of some sort. This film has the Cerberus computer system. If three codes are entered into the White House system, the terrorists can abort any nuclear missile launch. The Speaker (Morgan Freeman) takes over as acting President and lengthens his vowel sounds to sound, well, Presidential.

Rick Yune

Rick Yune

 

It’s not hard to say why this film fails to generate any thrills. It’s doing everything by the 1980s playbook and, since we’ve seen it all before, it’s no longer thrilling. The plot takes the plodding route. First, introduce the hero and establish a relationship with the President and his son. Establish the political scenario on the Korean peninsula and then stage the titular attack. Except it’s all the worst kind of melodrama without any depth or subtlety. For example when the Koreans spot our hero on the surveillance cameras, they identify him. One says, “We don’t need to worry about him.” and the President makes a whispered aside, “You should.” which says a great deal about the quality of the dialogue and its ability to maintain suspense rather than deflate it with unintended humour. Worse, a lot of the action takes place in semidarkness with the sub-Hans Zimmer heavy chords supposedly signalling how exciting all this is. Except it blatantly is not exciting. It’s just one cliché after another. So Gerard Butler starts torturing some of the Koreans he’s captured. His approach is literally laughable. Or to put it another way, the dialogue produced laughs from those around me which is not what you expect from a torture scene. Apart from this, the whole package is a third-rate rerun of the Die Hard scenario. He’s an insubordinate lone wolf in a violent quest to defeat terrorists who have taken over a building. All the scriptwriters have done is change the building to the White House which, fortunately, is insured against all the usual catastrophic events visited upon it by Hollywood. To tell us Gerard Butler is a hard man with a ruthless streak, he says “fuck” a lot. To show he’s also got a brain, he also uses the adjectival, gerund and adverbial forms of “fuck” as well.

Aaron Eckhart

Aaron Eckhart

 

Perhaps it’s just the 13 in 2013 that’s giving me such a run of bad luck, but every film so far apart from Iron Man 3 has ranged between bad and catastrophically awful. This film has a terrible plot that makes no sense a lot of the time, incredibly bad dialogue, badly-lit action scenes, poor CGI, wooden acting from almost everyone, only token women, and ghastly sentimentalism cast as patriotism in the final speeches. You should only go to see Olympus Has Fallen as a paid member of a focus group to analyse why this film is so bad and to offer advice to the producers on how to avoid making a turkey of this size in the future.

 

The Call (2013)

The Call

Emergency call centres perform a valuable public service. When there’s a problem, this is the interface between police, fire, ambulance, animal control or whatever other service is relevant to deal with the crisis. Manning the telephones of this LAPD 9-1-1 operation centre is a dedicated crew of individuals. They call it the Hive and these busy-bees must be able to deal with a whole range of different callers. Some will be calm, others in the full flow of panic. Some will be homicidal, others suicidal. So significant verbal skills are required to elicit relevant information and get the right response to the site of the call in the optimum time. I’m not sure to what extent the call centre room as shown in this film is realistic. It’s all very high tech with everyone supported by an active IT system. Because we’re to be reassured and entertained, the staff must be shown as caring and highly competent. It would not be good for public morale if this vital interface was shown as staffed by people who couldn’t give a shit what happened to the callers or those who are the subject of the call. The fact that, after a few hours of listening to hysterical people, any sane person would suffer burnout and just wish it would all go away is neither here nor there. No matter where these people are in the shift, they must be shown as bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, naturally following on from one call to the next with the same sunny smile and burning desire to help.

Halle Berry taking the call

Halle Berry taking the call

 

In the midst of all this extravagant altruism and caring shown in The Call (2013) sits Jordan Turner (Halle Berry) who gets to take a break when her boyfriend Officer Paul Phillips (Morris Chestnut) drops in — such are the perks when you’re the superstar. Then Lea Templeton (Evie Thompson) calls. A man is breaking into her house. This should be fairly routine. The girl should hide until the police can arrive. But Jordan Turner makes a mistake. When the girl disconnects, Jordan calls back and the sound of the call brings the man directly to his target. A few hours later, the girl is found dead. As is required in all films of this type, this mistake blights her perky attitude. She feels she cannot continue to field calls. What if she makes another mistake?

 

Six months later, she’s working as a trainer. This relieves her of the stress of answering live calls. In a mall, the second kidnap victim, Casey Welson (Abigail Breslin), is taken from a carpark. This recreates the basic situation with Michael Foster (Michael Eklund) the man who finds things not quite going his way and struggles to get things back on his track. So now we’re into a chase sequence as our heroine tries to keep the girl in one piece emotionally while eliciting enough information from the girl to track the car. Naturally the girl only has a disposable cellphone and the GPS can’t instantly give a location. This section of the film is actually quite interesting. Jordan has the difficult task of dealing with the hysterical girl and holding herself together. It’s her first time back behind the telephone after the disaster.

Abigail Breslan being overwhelmed by events

Abigail Breslan being overwhelmed by events

 

Now I’m not going to say flat-out that this is a really bad plot idea. Yes it’s a hoary cliché to have the protagonist suffer a traumatic incident and then have to get back on to the bicycle again. But there have been some pleasingly dramatic films where the result has been a tense and exciting battle for control of self in difficult circumstances that replicate the original tragedy. It’s a chance for redemption. Here we have a gap of six months with no calls and then she just happens to be standing next to an inexperienced operator when the call comes in. That’s not unreasonable. She’s a trainer and regularly gives her trainees a tour through the centre. That would have been enough if the rest of the film had been made with any intelligence. The difficulty is the essentially static nature of the set-up. The emotionally taut Jordan is talking on the phone, the whimpering, submissive kidnappee is in the trunk of the car, the panic-stricken kidnapper is driving around, and the police are in their cars and helicopters but do not touch base with the kidnapper. Something could have been made of this, I suppose. But the scriptwriter then gilds the lilly. He asks the question: what are the odds it’s the same guy from the first kidnapping. Life’s really strange how it works out.

Michael Eklund driving around

Michael Eklund driving around

 

Then, of course, Jordan realises it’s the same man!

 

I’m sure in the real world, dedicated people who work in these central facilities must occasionally draw the short straw twice. Statistics work out that way over thousands of calls. But this is one humungous coincidence and wrecks what might otherwise have been a good film if it had had a good script and a director prepared to be creative. Unfortunately, the script devolves into a blatantly silly sequence of events as our heroine decides to take action personally. On the off chance you go to see this film, I won’t spoil the ending for you. All I will say is that, to me, it’s embarrassingly long-drawn out and bad. In part, it seems to be pandering to an audience that’s presumed to want to watch the torture of a partially undressed young girl by a serial killer whack job. A lot of the ending also seems to have been filmed in darkness with tense music designed to make us think it’s exciting. In fact they couldn’t think of a way to make the action look realistic so kept the lights off. And finally we have the last two minutes of the ending which, not to put too fine a point on it, are hardly the most moral we’ve seen in the last few years. We’ve come a long way since the Hays Code but this just seems to be back to scraping the bottom of the ethical barrel.

 

So, in the stakes for identifying the worst films of 2013, this leaps into the lead. Having started with a reasonable premise, The Call ends up really bad.

 

The Last Stand (2013)

The Last Stand

You can imagine how the pitch meeting went. The team goes in with a note on the back of an envelope. The bad guy breaks out of jail and makes a run for the Mexican border. The only thing standing between him and freedom is a battle-scarred veteran sheriff in a hick town no-one’s ever heard of. They talk about nostalgia for the 1980s shoot ‘em up films where lone heroes prevail against outrageous odds. But brought up to date, of course. Modern audiences, they don’t go for the simple-minded shit no more. This one’s gotta have heart. They talk about timing and the potential availability of a suitable geriatric action hero who can carry this type of film. Inquiries are made. He would be interested. They talk dollars and the film is green-lighted.

 

For films like The Last Stand (2013) to work, there has to be a script with good pacing. Strangely, the writing is left to a relatively inexperienced Andrew Knauer so it needs support. This comes from Jee-woon Kim as director. Although this is his first US feature film, he’s one of South Korea’s best directors having garnered praise, a few awards, and good box office on the Asian circuit for all his films. One, A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) was remade by Hollywood as The Uninvited (2009). He’s a good choice to take a very simple story, string it out over 107 minutes and keep us entertained.

Agent John Bannister (Forest Whitaker) and Ray Owens (Arnold Schwarzenegger) not talking to each other

Agent John Bannister (Forest Whitaker) and Ray Owens (Arnold Schwarzenegger) not talking to each other

 

So this is a twin-track film. We need a slow set-up in Sommerton Junction, Arizona, next to the Mexican border where we meet everyone who’s going to feature in the battle at the end. We also need to establish the threat and meet the FBI team that’s going to be chasing the bad guy as he makes his break for freedom. In the boondocks, it’s another routine day of festivities as the local people celebrate the departure of their football team and most of the town in support. Ray Owens (Arnold Schwarzenegger), the Sheriff, gets ready for the peace of the weekend, undisturbed by inconvenient people jaywalking on the streets or otherwise making a nuisance of themselves. This doesn’t prevent him from picking up Burrell Thomas (Peter Stormare) on his radar as he passes through Sommerton. He feels wrong and, as we later see, he’s on his way to meet with the rest of the gang which has a vital task to perform.

 

In LA, Agent John Bannister (Forest Whitaker) is getting ready to move Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) the Mexican drug boss in what’s supposed to be a secret convoy. Not unnaturally, there’s a mole so, to produce the necessary trigger for the rest of the film, some of his gang are waiting for the convoy with one of these cranes with a convenient electromagnetic grab to lift the armored truck on to the roof of a nearby tall building. Exit drug cartel boss with an FBI hostage in the fastest thing on wheels stolen from a nearby motor show. The car itself is great fun and, although hilariously foolish, the way it takes out the two SUVs carrying the SWAT team is terrific fun. Indeed, this typifies a certain sense of inventiveness about the way the plot develops alongside the more routine moments of realism, e.g. the failure of the milk delivery alerts the town that the local farmer may have had a heart attack. Or could it be something more serious?

Eduardo Noriega behind the wheel in his getaway car

Eduardo Noriega behind the wheel in his getaway car

 

Unlike the films of the 1980s which were vehicles for Arnold Schwarzenegger to dance around the screen avoiding bullets and taking out small armies on the “other side”, this has him as a reluctant hero. He’s more afraid because he’s seen blood spilled and knows what’s coming. Fortunately there’s the usual weirdly eccentric guy who lives outside town who rescues the situation. Lewis Dinkum (Johnny Knoxville) is a dealer in historic arms. Deputising him gives the defenders access to an impressive range of weaponry including a WWII Vickers machine gun and some mediaeval armour — just what you need when fighting off a well-armed gang. Trying to move the townsfolk out of the diner has humour as does the attempt to establish a barricade using whatever’s to hand. It’s a good set-up.

 

This is not to say the film is actually any good. As mindless entertainment, it keeps going well. But if you make any attempt to think about what’s happening, you could shoot the script full of holes. The ending is just extraordinary and not in a good way. It’s rare to come across such an array of poor contrivances to fill the last ten minutes or so as they drive around the corn field, manage to navigate to the bridge without GPS, fight without anyone waiting on the Mexican side to welcome our escapee, and then limp back to town doing the Lone Ranger bit with the wrecked car as the tired horse. To say the follow-up FBI investigation is a joke is an understatement. Indeed, the lack of chemistry between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Forest Whitaker is embarrassing, and the final arrest is the capping moment of stupidity as, apparently, the FBI can hack Swiss bank accounts on demand. That said, The Last Stand is not pretending to be anything other than a popcorn special and, at that level, it succeeds admirably. So long as you’re not expecting anything special, you’ll enjoy it.

 

Merantau (2009)

February 21, 2013 Leave a comment

merantau

Merantau (2009) was the first collaboration in Indonesia between director and screenwriter Gareth Evans and action/martial arts expert Iko Uwais. This film follows a rite of passage theme. The word refers to a kind of spiritual journey to be taken by a young man as he seeks to become an adult. The underlying notion is that the relationship you form with nature teaches basic moral values. So the story migrates from an idyllic pastoral opening with a calm and loving family life to Jakarta where an entirely different culture dominates. The film-maker’s intention is to show deep roots in the local community and the problems of displacement. The danger in leaving home is that, when you return, you have become a different person who no longer feels comfortable in the original setting. So the theme is about identity and the balance between who you were when young and who you choose to become as an adult. Assuming there’s some degree of control of the process, the intention should always be to preserve what was good and to add only good new elements. Except, of course, what is good in one place is not necessarily a virtue in another. Experience is culturally specific as everyone adapts to their immediate environment and decides whether to conform to local conditions. Socially, the desire to fit in may lead to compromises in previously held values.

Iko Uwais before the fighting starts

Iko Uwais before the fighting starts

 

His arrival in Jakarta is not auspicious. The address and telephone number he’s been given no longer offer hope of a welcome. He spends his first night roughing it in a construction site. The next day Adit (Yusuf Aulia), a young thief, tries to steal his wallet and he saves Astri (Sisca Jessica), the boy’s older sister, from a beating by a club owner and pimp. This Johni (Alex Abbad) has a contract to deliver five girls to two more powerful Western businessmen who are organising a trafficking operation. When Johni only has four virgins to make up the final number ordered, this gives him a problem so he sends out his men to find Astri. Of course, our hero is accidentally in the right place at the right time and we see him initially fail to rescue her. It’s a good try at odds of four-to-one, but he loses. Being kicked on the ground does not make him feel better, but it does trigger a new determination. Left outside on his own, he makes a decision about who he wants to be. He may not know the girl but he feels obligated to help her. Naturally this establishes the basis for the rest of the film as a chase with a fairly continuous fight sequence as the outraged gang tries to get the girl back and take revenge on this troublesome youngster.

 

Some of the fighting is terrific. The form of martial arts involved is silat which is very popular in the ASEAN region and, as seen in this film, appears very effective. In saying this, I’m making allowances for the necessary dramatisation of the fights for cinema purposes. I’ve seen it in television highlights on reports from local and regional competitions and what we see here is similar. We do, of course have the usual problem that sometimes people who are hit bounce back and keep fighting but, on key occasions, everyone lies down as soon as they are hit so that the fight can develop sequentially and then come down to the climatic fights with fellow experts. The fight in the lift with Yayan Ruhian and at the end with the two Western brothers are impressive. The co-ordination between the two brothers in their attacking style is particularly interesting (it features Mads Koudal and Laurent Buson).

Sisca Jessica a fairly sturdy victim

Sisca Jessica a fairly sturdy victim

 

Overall, we have a coherent story of an innocent young man who gets sucked into a running battle and chooses to stay in the fight. No-one knows him. If he went back to his village, he would be safe. But as he strives to become an adult, he has the determination to keep fighting. The tenuous relationship he forms with the girl and her brother is simple and emotionally direct. He helps and they accept his help because they have no choice. The ending is rather mawkish and melodramatic but, in the final scenes we come back to the strength that can flow from the sense of belonging to a community. This leads me to conclude this is a good but not outstanding film. It has some impressive fight sequences and the script is more than adequate.

 

The slight problem lies in the youthful inexperience of Iko Uwais as the hero. Somehow he never comes across as having the “killer” instinct that would be necessary to survive. You can’t fight this number of different assailants if you think they are going to get up after being hit and keep fighting. You have to be prepared to main if not kill. Throughout he just feels too nice. Worse, when he has a moment to reflect on progress to date, he never once expresses remorse for the injuries he’s caused. Because of the opening sequence, he should be conflicted when forced to injure fellow human beings, even in self-defence. Indeed, I find the performance slightly monotonous. It contrasts quite strongly with the acting in The Raid: Redemption or Serbuan maut (2011) where, as a seasoned SWAT officer, our hero has no compunction about disabling or killing anyone who gets in his way. The relationship between the actor and his screen wife and brother make a stark contrast to the man as an officer defending himself which comes over well. In Merantau, Iko Uwais shows immense martial arts skills but is somewhat wooden as an actor.

 

For a review of another film by Gareth Evans and Iko Uwais, see The Raid: Redemption or Serbuan maut (2011).

 

The Raid: Redemption or Serbuan maut (2011)

February 19, 2013 7 comments

The_Raid_Redemption

The opening of The Raid: Redemption or Serbuan maut (2011) sets the tone of great stillness in prayer and meditation as a counterpoint to the phenomenal power and speed of the blows struck at the punching bag. As in all things, there must be a perfect balance between mind and body if the optimum outcomes are going to be achieved. In everyday situations, you can avoid disaster while only operating at 50%. When someone may be trying to kill you, whether in hand-to-hand or at a distance with a gun, survival depends on fast reflexes (and some luck). Rama (Iko Uwais) is a man in harmony with himself and in a loving relationship. His wife is pregnant, soon to give birth.

 

Written and directed by Gareth Evans, this has proved to be one of the more successful films to come out of Indonesia over the last twenty years. On a budget of just over $1 million, it took about $15 million worldwide which may not sound much but is actually very successful for a film R-rated for extreme violence. Set in the heart of Jakarta’s slums, this plays to the classic script idea of a SWAT raid gone wrong. In theory, it’s always possible to take down a well-protected building so long as you have the element of surprise. But, if your approach is detected and the opposing forces have a chance to mobilise and prepare defences, what was a perfectly planned operation can turn into a deadly trap for those who manage to get inside.

Ray Sahetapy and Pierre Gruno decide whether it's a good day to die

Ray Sahetapy and Pierre Gruno decide whether it’s a good day to die

 

The briefing for the raid is given by Rama as the SWAT squad drives through the rain to the building owned by Tama (Ray Sahetapy). He’s established this tower block as a no-go area for the police and offers sanctuary to any criminal who can afford to pay. There’s also a drug processing lab so the building has a strong armed guard in place — there are always threats from rival gangs to contend with. It’s somewhat cavalier only to tell the team where they are going at the last minute. To put it mildly, it’s foolhardy to send in such a small squad (including one rookie who’s never actually been on a live mission before). But that’s the way films like this are supposed to work. You send in a team and then watch as, one by one, they fall by the wayside. In this, I note that Judge Dredd and one rookie take on a fortified building. One forgives this idiocy because it’s science fictional and such comic book heroes always prevail no matter what the odds. This has more pretensions to realism and so the idiocy is more difficult to forgive. If the government was serious about removing this crime lord, they would send in the army after softening up the building with artillery. No matter how elite this police SWAT team is supposed to be, this is a suicide mission. To emphasise this, the film has an establishing scene showing Tama cold-bloodedly executing a number of men. When he runs out of bullets, he uses a hammer to kill the last one kneeling. It’s only later we learn that the raid has not been officially sanctioned and no-one else in the police force knows they are in action. For Lieutenant Wahyu (Pierre Gruno) it’s personal but not quite for the usual reason.

Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian decide who's the best

Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian decide who’s the best

 

At this point, I need to indulge in a little honesty. No-one watches films of this type because they make sense or say something profound about the human condition. Films like this are a guilty pleasure because of the martial arts. Too often, directors are faced with a cast of actors who cannot fight very well. To create reasonable effects, the choreography, camera angles and cutting hide the deficiencies. If all else fails, wire work has people flying through the air to distract us from the lack of real martial arts ability. In this film the director has people who can fight and he’s not afraid to show us all the moves in reasonably clear view, i.e. the stunt fighters and actors could not actually kill each other but had to make it look as realistic as possible. There are few cut-aways and no shaky camera sequences to hide the action. This is violence at its most exciting, if brutal, best. In particular, the fight at end between Rama, Andi (Doni Alamsyah) Tama’s more intelligent lieutenant and Mad Dog (Yayan Ruhian) the vicious enforcer, is quite extraordinary. No matter what your opinion of the depiction of violence on a screen, whether large or small, there’s something magnificent about fights like this. They only come along every now and then. When they do arrive, you should take your time to appreciate testosterone-fueled combat as an art form.

 

So, to sum up, once we get past the initial whittling of numbers which is almost exclusively by gunfire, we’re into the cat-and-mouse game between the few survivors, who aren’t exactly in the pink of health, and the excitable residents who think the remaining officers will be easy to kill. In this, you should understand the parang or machete is a commonly used weapon in Malaysia and Indonesia. The use of baton or knife as defence is beautifully demonstrated in the corridor fights. There’s little or no subtlety in the plot once the set-up is established. It’s just a race to the finishing line (with just one interesting revelation as we approach the end). For those who enjoy martial arts (featuring silat) or violent action films, The Raid: Redemption or Serbuan maut is probably a must-see. Everyone else who hates gore should steer well clear.

 

For a review of another film by Gareth Evans and featuring Iko Uwais, see Merantau (2009).

 

Volcano High or WaSanGo (2001)

January 30, 2011 Leave a comment

When you view any foreign film, the inevitable first response is to filter the experiences through the lenses of your own cultural expectations. What you see triggers associations with memories of your own visual experience. You are reminded of television programmes and films you have seen. Because of Western notions of supremacy, you tend to find foreign films derivative. You think whatever you recall from your own culture must have come first. That the foreigners have merely copied these ideas. In the 1950s, I grew up with the constant reinforcement of the post-war myth that everything made in Japan was a cheap copy of one of “our” inventions. This gave us two reason to think badly of Japan (apart from the war which, as victors, we were supposed to put behind us as we rebuilt for the future). That all they could do was copy. There was no natural creativity. And that everything they did produce was cheap and poor value. In reality, this was the worst of manipulative protectionism, shielding our manufacturers from the very effective competition from abroad.

 

So it is particularly fascinating to come to Volcano High aka WaSanGo, a film written and directed by Kim Tae-Gyun, made in Korea in 2001. A casual first glance would nominate key words like kung fu, action and fantasy. But there’s rather more cultural substance to it. No matter what you might expect, this is not a routine “kung fu with fantasy elements” movie set in a High School. It’s a clever and innovative way of examining some of South Korea’s core values.

 

For a moment, let’s think about the culture of South Korea which derives its power from a mixture of Shamanism and Confucianism. It has the same general materialism of other “Asian” countries (using Asian in its broadest sense) valuing success and seeking for sufficient prosperity to ensure good health and a long life. But the primary values are filial piety, focussed on the family and depending at its root in continuous deference to those who are older and in positions of authority. This runs through the worship of ancestors, a practice intended to reinforce a general emphasis of social hierarchy. Everyone has their status and the respect accorded it. Maintaining this pecking order maintains a spirit of collectivism and social harmony. Conformity and loyalty to the peer group is fundamental. Yet there is always a potential for change through Shamanism. This proposes the view that there is an animate power in particular objects and nature in general, which can directly affect the fortunes of every individual.

 

So it is that Kim Kyeong-su played by Jang Hyuk comes to Volcano High. This is the end of the line for him. He has been kicked out of all the other local schools for indiscipline. In this, he is a great disappointment to his father who has always taught him to respect his elders and, if necessary, take a beating to prove it. This goes hard for the young man who is actually possessed of great supernatural abilities. Able to draw on water for strength and energy, he could be the most devastating of kung fu exponents. Yet, in this last chance saloon, no matter whether he is personally humiliated or he perceives others around him unjustly victimized, he makes a virtue of turning the other cheek.

 

What makes the story so interesting is the subversive nature of the actual power relationships both among the students and the staff. In this kind of film, we are always dealing with clichés. There’s the terrible school bully who uses his fighting skills to intimidate everyone else. This is Jang Ryang played by Su-Ro Kim When he deems the time right, he notifies the beautiful and righteous girl, Yu Chae-i played by Shin Min-A, that she is now to consider herself his girl. Needless to say, this is not well received. Then there’s the devious school deputy who is prepared to go to any lengths to secure possession of a kung fu manual hidden away by the mild-mannered school principal. Indeed, because it has remained hidden, there has been a seventeen-year lull in the feuds between the different clans and factions. The myths say whoever holds the manual will rule the world. So at a personal level, the deputy must oppose his “boss”, while at a society level, the prize is the ability to defeat the Korean hierarchy. It represents the end of deference and the use of skills to establish a new pecking order.

 

As you might predict, Kim’s arrival destabilises the dynamics among the students. The fact he chooses not to fight is more than obvious to all who see him. Then the plans of the deputy go awry and, with the principal incapacitated, he must call in outside help to find the manual and subdue the students. The arrival of a high-powered squad of five enforcers is the catalyst to bring Kim’s powers out in their full glory. In this he is fortunate that it’s raining most of the time — a factor that gives Kim access to enough power to beat all-comers. All he needs to do is break the conditioning imposed on him by his father and, when you place him in full context, all Korean society. Consider that he is now defying a group identified as disciplinary masters representing the power and authority of the Education Ministry. The fact they are not authorised and merely top kung fu exponents employed by the Deputy to find the missing manual does not change the challenge to Kim’s social conditioning. Fortunately, the student framed for the attack on the principal is able to help Kim achieve his full potential.

 

The hit squad’s leader, a maths teacher called Mr Ma, is played with wonderful malevolence by Jun-ho Heo). Without this pivotal performance, the film would collapse but, in a clever use of shadows, he moves as if partly cloaked in darkness. The cinematography and direction is careful to establish his dominant status and therefore represent the most effective challenge to Kim. Indeed, if the team had imposed order in a more even-handed way, Korean values would have prevailed and Kim would not have rebelled. Mr Ma must therefore victimise individuals and be manifestly unKorean to provoke our hero. When finally roused, Kim takes to the air in full wired combat mode as the rain sweeps across the sport field. Although some of the wire work lacks the control we now expect of these sequences, the resulting fight is really pleasing, driven by the intensity of Mr Ma’s control and the raw emotion of the rookie just coming into a full understanding of what he can do.

 

And at the end? Well, in a sense, order is restored and the key characters fall back into the roles expected of them. You can only bend Korean society so far before it snaps everyone back into place.

 

This is genuinely enjoyable whether you want to watch it just as a kung fu movie with faintly comic aspirations or as an interesting commentary on Korean social values. And, of course, it is creative, original and not derivative at all.

 

Paris Express or Coursier (2010)

January 13, 2011 Leave a comment

Let’s take two completely different situations. First, we have the consummate professional delivery rider called Sam. The firm may not value him, giving him the worst of the bikes with dangerous tyres, but the only people who can get from A to B faster are in a helicopter. On the ground, there’s no stopping him. Think parkour on a scooter and you have our man. Except he is both unlucky (so often late) and diffident (so hides his light under a bushel). It would therefore be harder to find a more down-trodden man. Particularly because his girl friend, Nadia, has already told her parents he is a businessman running a delivery company and with her sister’s wedding looming, she is being forced into the situation of having to introduce a failure to all her family. In this context, those of you who are old enough should remember Jour de Fête, a remarkable comedy by Jacques Tati. Here a rural postman is suddenly inspired to acts of greatness by seeing a documentary film about the US postal system. One should never be surprised when quiet men prove themselves lions.

 

Second, we have a top criminal gang that has stolen something of great value for a buyer. Now there has to be an exchange of value. To achieve this, the right players have to be in the right place at the right time with all that is necessary to make the exchange. Think Colonel Mustard, Professor Plum and Miss Scarlett in the library with both the rope and the dagger. If anyone or anything is missing, the exchange will fail and serious criminals will be upset.

 

Now mix. At an early point in setting up the exchange, Loki, the courier played by the sauve Jimmy Jean-Louis, realises he is being followed, so hands over a large amount of cash in an envelope to Sam. All our star delivery man has to do is deliver the unopened envelope to a café in an adjoining neighbourhood. It should only take ten minutes. What could be easier?

Catalina Denis and Michael Youn

 

The essence of good farce is that it should be absolutely straight. If anyone steps out of character and plays to the camera, showing they understand their situation, the whole effect is lost. So Sam must innocently take the package and then ensure it gets where it is supposed to go. Except. . . Well, it seems there are different groups determined to lay their hands on the stolen goods or the price to be paid for them or both. Sam is therefore taken in hand by one faction and must work out where to go next to use the money to buy the diamonds. So begins the pursuit of a logical trail across Paris. At different points, Nadia is kidnapped but does not realise it. One of Sam’s friends is kidnapped and does realise it. Sam appears to have rough sex with an Amazon who, when not beating up men, enjoys discussing the finer points of classical art. We all get to see a new version of the Macarena as a wedding dance, and learn how the possession of several staplers can make men dangerous.

 

All of this should indicate that this is a laugh-out-loud farce of the highest class. Yes, people fight and draw blood, and bullets fly with devastating effect on property. But as absurdity piles on logical absurdity, we move inexorably towards the final exchange, helped by Dickhead who cannot hold his urine, particularly after eating chocolate cake. We collect Professor Plum as our expert valuer and Miss Scarlett has the original stolen goods. The only question is whether Sam can stand in for Colonel Mustard.

 

As for the cast, everyone is wonderfully deadpan. Michaël Youn plays an increasingly desperate Sam who must somehow find his way through the maze. Géraldine Nakache as Nadia slowly comes to realise she is in the middle of gang warfare (even as her sister’s wedding goes on around her). While Catalina Denis as our Amazon warrior shows remarkable humanity for someone so deadly. Written and directed by Hervé Renoh a director moving from the small to the large screen, we have a wonderfully assured result, beautifully balancing the necessities of the plot and the opportunities for the principal characters to grow. It is genuinely hilarious and, if you do speak French, the bland English subtitles hardly do justice to the variety of the swearing. This adds to the humour but enables the film to show with a lower age rating. Most refreshingly, the mixture of ages and cultures in the surrounding seats were all laughing. Sometimes humour does not cross cultural boundaries. This seems to win people over by being a subversive action thriller. There is mayhem and chases, even a leap to make Evel Knievel proud, but all in the pursuit of amusement. It’s worth every cent to see it.

 

Bloodline by F. Paul Wilson

First a few words for all those who are intimidated by strangers in public places.  You know the kind of situation: a large and obviously aggressive person is playing music to all within earshot on a bus or train. A polite request to turn it down provokes our friend into increasing the volume to maximum. What to do? Well, along with the majority, I labour under conflicting psychological burdens: Doormat Syndrome and Superhero Complex. Being of retirement age by local standards and never having more than five mussels available to me at any one time, I tend not to be confrontational in public (particularly because fighting with seafood is never very effective). Yet my mild-mannered exterior conceals a Wolverine or Bananaman (sorry, wrong fantasy) that would brush aside anyone threatening me or mine. Alternatively, I’m an NRA member and will pull out a gun and shoot the damn box making the noise.

À propos of nothing, on UK television from 1975-1994, the ubiquitous catchphrase was “Jim’ll fix it!” Now as Sir Jimmy Saville fades into relative insignificance (albeit that the game 80-year old did reappear briefly on British screens in 2006), he’s been overtaken by Jack.

By way of introduction to the new Mr. Fix-it, one of the key questions of 1984 was posed by Ray Parker Jr.:

If there’s somethin’ strange in your neighborhood
Who ya gonna call (Ghostbusters)

By one of those meaningless coincidences, Repairman Jack first hit the streets in The Tomb (1984) and, when confronted by something strange, it would be hard to find anyone better at defending your interests. So now our hero returns in the 11th episode to continue fighting the good fight in Bloodline courtesy of F. Paul Wilson (Gauntlet Press, 2007). [Wilson is another of these writers where a mass of his fiction ties together into a single oeuvre — for an outline, I’ve included a brief afterword to explain things.]

So who is this Jack guy? Well, he’s a libertarian, not to say, contrarian, independent, self-reliant kinda guy who’s chosen to stand outside the bounds of conventional society. Physically, he’s the ultimately faceless Average Joe — except, of course, he’s anything but “average” in his fighting abilities. He’s also clever enough to construct false identities under which to hide, yet a highly moral White Knight who will ride out to rescue the innocent victims of crime or circumstance. By nature, he would take a shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later approach but, because he fears the attention of the authorities who might recognise the falsity of his identity, he’s usually circumspect.

What then is Jack’s appeal and why has he become a real hero? Lets start with an assumption, accepting that not everyone will agree. The stereotype of a vigilante is negative. Thus, anyone who steps outside the prevailing legal system and administers their own brand of justice whenever the need arises is potentially a dangerous member of society. In fact, because they seek out and kill specific individuals or “types”, they’re probably more blameworthy than most “ordinary” murderers. But Jack doesn’t quite fit. He’s distinguishable from Brian Garfield’s Death Wish character, Paul Benjamin, because Jack isn’t generally motivated by the need to avenge some past wrong. Further, he doesn’t dismiss existing laws or the policing systems. Rather, he takes a dispassionate view of the world (except where his own family is involved).

I suppose, in an odd way, he’s more like Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns — a complex lonely character, wary of relationships because they slow him down and not afraid to consider killing villains on utilitarian grounds. Jack is a blend of good intentions and dark menace. If we stopped there, we would have an urban mercenary, available for hire, prepared to fix difficult problems for those in need. This is the Jack of Legacies and, in this role, he’s become a very popular figure with many more books, both sequel and prequel, already contracted. But Jack unintentionally comes to be no more than a pawn. Well, to be precise, he becomes the Heir to the role of Sentinel — a position with very bad fringe benefits — intentional paradox — that involves defending the human race in an ongoing cosmic conflict. A responsibility up with which he is forced to put.

At this point, we need to get into Aristotle (the original Glock-toting Athenian philosopher)

What do you know about Aristotle?
Perhaps a little or not a lot(le).

In Poetics, Aristotle discusses the unities of time, place and action. The first two unities reflect the idea that a drama should last no longer than the time it takes to act it out on a stage, and occupy only the space that would fit on to a stage. In more modern times, we’ve grown used to authors manipulating time with leaps of days, weeks or even years between scenes not uncommon. Similarly, with either bare stages or complex sets, playwrights suggest or depict completely different places. Now add in cinema and television dramas with their use of the new CGI technologies, and the ability to play with time and space is limited only by the willingness of readers and viewers to suspend disbelief.

Yet, Wilson more or less observes the unities. Each of the Repairman Jack novels takes place in no more than one month, and each chapter is one day. Wilson also tends to favour limiting Jack’s movements, only allowing him to travel outside New York in the later novels in the series. To that extent, the pressures of time seem more real to the reader and the books feel more claustrophobic.

As required by the Poetics, Wilson also stresses unified action, where all the main events in the plot carry a definite link to other actions, and subsequent actions are the necessary and probable outcomes of the former. OK, those of us who read the Adversary Cycle years ago know where the narrative has to go — it’s the end of the world as we know it in Nightworld. Wilson therefore has the seriously difficult job of maintaining interest in the character’s development in each book-length instalment while moving the plot along to its inevitable conclusion. Worse, the fans know what they like about Jack and they would prefer a conservative approach, i.e. don’t change nothing, just give us more of Jack the murderous mercenary kicking butt. Yet the need to complete the narrative arc forces Wilson to goad Jack in the right direction and give us an increasingly sophisticated explanation of how and why things are happening.

Which brings us to the latest instalment. Unfortunately, I think Wilson gets the balance slightly wrong. We’re into the tried-and-tested formula which sees Jack asked to do one of his fixes and, fairly rapidly, he recognises that there’s no such thing as coincidence. He’s been pitched back into the conflict. In most of the previous instalments, the plot-driving McGuffin is dynamically integrated into the narrative with Jack having to find it and/or neutralise it. But, here the device is nothing more than an info-dump to advance our general understanding of why different people in the serial have different abilities. It’s information we have to have if the assumption of real power is to feel credible in the books yet to be written. Equally, it serves to introduce at least two new characters who will obviously reappear. I’m not denying that the central situation for Jack to fix moves along at a brisk pace but, more than any of the previous books, this feels like a stepping stone to progress the overall plot. Now that we have all the oDNA/genetics and associated science out of the way, we can look forward to searching for Dawn and dealing with the Kickers in the next book or two. Which leads me to conclude that even though this is clearly not the best in the serial, it does contain the signature no-nonsense transparent writing style and a reasonable degree of the expected dispensation of “justice” that we fans have come to expect from Jack. Thus, if you’re following the story, this eleventh volume contains vital information and is worth reading. If you’re only reading it for the traditional Jack, be prepared to flip through the boring bits. And, finally, if you’ve read this far and I’ve inspired you to start reading from book one of the Adversary Cycle, you’ve a long way to go to catch up. For the completists among you, can can even try the origin story in the Secret Histories.

Afterword

A simplified version of the overall serial follows but, before you continue, repeat after me, “Learning new stuff is good for the soul.” The Repairman Jack serial is actually a kind of ex post facto repair job in its own right. Wilson started off by writing the Adversary Cycle (now available as a limited edition boxed set if you want to spend the extra money through http://www.borderlandspress.com/adversary.html). The Tomb is the second book and introduces Jack. Wilson liked the character so later returned to tinker with the detail of the timeline in the Adversary Cycle. This has allowed him to write a new series featuring Jack to parallel events in the first series and to fill in the gaps before we get to Nightworld — the final book in the Adversary Cycle. Warning. If you’re starting from scratch, always try to buy the most recently revised editions of each book so that the best level of continuity is maintained. This shouldn’t be a problem buying new, but you may be tempted on to the second-hand market to get the very cheap reading copies. And read them in order otherwise you’re likely to lose the thread of what’s happening. Those of you who like to see the big picture can find a detailed list at The Secret History of the World

For all my reviews of books by F. Paul Wilson, see:
Aftershock & Others
Bloodline
By the Sword
The Dark at the End
Dark City
Fatal Error
Ground Zero
Secret Circles
Secret Histories
Secret Vengeance

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