The Review: Who’s your favourite James Bond? Throughout history, men have fought duels over lesser arguments. Whenever more than one actor has taken on the same role, in anything from Doctor Who to Robin Hood, it seems that human nature is to try to understand which one we have a personal relationship with. I’m not going to get into that debate here, other than to say I was brought up on Roger Moore, so have more of an affinity for his films than others who might have started with Sean Connery or Daniel Craig. None of them really look anything like Ian Fleming’s description of the character, so it all comes down to manner and behaviour. Daniel Craig’s first two films have set a new pattern, in the same way that the first Bonds of all his predecessors have also established a distinctive style, each markedly different. So how do you get audiences who are saddled with the expectations of specific Bonds, not to mention the cumulative weight of fifty years of history, into cinemas for the latest Bond?
Apparently what you do is create a curious hybrid of the old and the new. Firstly to the old: Daniel Craig’s Bond has gone from young stag to weather-beaten old sea dog in the space of two films, skipping through off-screen history to develop a back story that doesn’t feel earned. This Bond’s now well entrenched in MI6, and the core group from Fleming’s novels (M, Q, Tanner, played by Judi Dench, Ben Whishaw and Rory Kinnear) are now all present, correct and getting decent amounts of screen time, like a globe-trotting episode of The Office. The core elements of the series are all in place, including glamorous girls such as Berenice Marlohe, music and title sequences that feel Bond through and through from series regular Daniel Kleinman and newcomers Adele and Thomas Newman and actual globe-trotting, from Istanbul to the Far East and back to London itself. The net result of this is to make Skyfall unmistakably Bond, and old elements are regularly trotted out to crowd pleasing, if occasionally logic-defying, effect.
For the new, this is still a Bond willing to take a few risks, even if they are small ones. First and foremost is the overall structure, with a significant amount more emphasis on personal relationships. Goldeneye first pitched Bond against an old colleague, but at times Skyfall verges on an industrial tribunal with guns, innuendo and homoerotic undertones. It’s the latter, embodied in Javier Bardem’s Raoul Silva, that gives Skyfall its most interesting edge, treading a line that’s finer than you’d expect between effete and brutal. New characters also widen the film mythology, including more government operatives in the form of Ralph Fiennes and Naomie Harris, and even an unseen element of Bond’s past in the form of Albert Finney. But there’s also a number of inversions of standard Bond themes, with some role reversal in the final face-off and a real willingness to put character before action, no doubt due to the influence of director Sam Mendes. The greater desire of the second generation Bond producers to allow directors and their teams to put more of their own stamp on the series has been increasing over the past ten years, and reaches thrilling new heights with the contribution of cinematographer Roger Deakins. Despite shooting on digital rather than film, Bond has never looked as sharp or as rich as it does here.
The melding of old and new, self-reference and mild innovation feel like they should be moving the series on, but somehow we’re left with the feeling of treading water; after three Bonds Daniel Craig’s tenure seems to have regressed into Bondian adolescence rather than progressing further. While the more character based approach is to be lauded, and it’s arguable that this is also the best acted Bond as well as being the most impressive visually, there’s a compact feel after the early expansiveness of the Istanbul pre-credits chase, and the action especially when running round London feels sub-Bourne and undercooked, as if the movie’s in need of one more strong action set piece. There’s also a slight regression in terms of character development, and attempts to retain the cold heart given to Bond by his previous experiences present a callousness verging on misogyny. The last frustration is the humour, of which 90% is a welcome lightening of the over-serious take of Quantum Of Solace, but 10% is sub-Roger Moore cheesiness and sticks out a mile. It’s frustrating, for while this is another great Daniel Craig Bond film it’s not the outstanding Bond film which we’ve never had, the mixture of elements not fulfilling their potential to be a best in series. But I have a sneaking suspicion that a few more folk will be answering the question of their favourite Bond with Daniel Craig’s name after this, and both they and I look forward to seeing what else he can do with the role.
Why see it at the cinema: If you’re going to wait for the DVD, you might as well be dead to me. Why do I bother? (Kidding. But seriously.) If you still need convincing, I will reiterate that it looks stunning on the big screen – so much so I’m tempted to hunt down an IMAX for a repeat viewing – and it’s the perfect embodiment of a mutual audience enjoyment experience. There was applause at the end of the screening I was at. If you’re in the UK, you might just need to book first though…
James Bond will return in my Bond Legacy review of Skyfall, where I’ll be looking at the previous legacies and their effect on Skyfall, looking at if anything was missed in my earlier Legacy summaries and trying to work out where we go from here.
The Score: 8/10
Science is well on the way to answering most of life’s great questions. Thankfully, science hasn’t yet found a way to take care of some of life’s more trivial matters, such as applying rigorous techniques to putting a series of motion pictures featuring the same central character into increasing order of quality, based on nothing more than personal preference. Whether he’s simply a violent, prurient escapist male fantasy taken to extremes, or actually the embodiment of everything desirable about popular culture wrapped up in a smart suit ordering cocktails, I’m still not quite sure after all this time, but at least watching all 23 films has enabled me to gain the gratification of ranking them into some sort of order.
Here is the list of all 23 official EON Bond films, in increasing order of competence. In case you are wondering, I loathe Casino Royale (1967) and Never Say Never Again, so they wouldn’t make a top 23 with a wider scope anyway. (Ha.)
23. A View To A Kill
Diamonds might be forever, but every Bond should know when it’s time to pack it in and hand over the Walther to the next fellow. AVTAK is a poor film in almost ever respect; Christopher Walken is weird but never menacing, Grace Jones is menacing but never sexy, Tanya Roberts is so anonymous her own family might struggle to recognise her and most of the rest is either old men toddling around the French countryside or one old man clambering about laboriously in various parts of California. We should all be relieved that this embarrassment didn’t kill the franchise stone dead.
22. Die Another Day
If this had actually been made as a cartoon, some people would still have griped over the lack of realism. Die Another Day sets itself up as a gritty, realistic take in the style of the films that followed it, then abandons that for abysmal CGI, charmless direction and a grating Madonna cameo. Your ears will feel abused listening to the Madonna song, not even the slightest fit for the opening credits, the bad guys are wet and their plan nonsensical and Halle Berry is less sexy here than she is in just about anything outside of Monster’s Ball. I have less of an issue with the invisible car than most people, but it’s still daft as a box of frogs.
Not so much bad as just eyeball-clenchingly dull, Sean Connery’s obvious ennui already after four films in four years and the unfortunate fact that Kevin McClory has to be involved after Ian Fleming handled their script badly doesn’t do anyone any favours. Sequences underwater which could have been exciting instead become interminable, and although it’s not one of the longer Bonds it certainly feels like it. The fact that Connery then signed up to the unofficial remake should make him and everyone else ashamed, and we can only be thankful that Kevin McClory’s passing spared any of the other Bonds a similar fate.
There are large stretches of Octopussy that are worse than anything in Thunderball, but it gets more credit with me for at least putting in some effort. The opening and closing airborne set-pieces are largely satisfying, Louis Jourdan is a suitably smarmy villain and the East German scenes do generate at least a modicum of tension. Roger Moore is by now in full-on arched eyebrow mode and Maud Adams is less effective here than she was in The Man With The Golden gun, but Octopussy isn’t a ride entirely without entertainment or intrigue.
19. Diamonds Are Forever
Anyone who thinks that the transformation of Bond into a more light-hearted, less ruthless entertainment vehicle rather than a cold-blooded killer who had any woman he wants started with Roger Moore obviously hasn’t watched Diamonds Are Forever in a while. It’s a Roger Moore type of film, and not a great one at that, in every sense other than its star, with yet another, increasingly uninteresting, version of Blofeld and Jill St. John’s brash, stroppy Bond girl being at time the cinematic equivalent of nails down a blackboard. The only real characters of interest, even if they are a sign of the times, are Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd, but most of the rest is poorly handled and eminently forgettable.
Yes, it’s the one with the now infamous double-taking pigeon, but if you don’t mind it being an all-out romp that only exists because of Star Wars, then there’s reasonable amounts of fun to be had here. Bringing back Jaws is handled badly, turning him into a figure of fun and failing to gain sympathy, but the rest of the film never stands still long enough for its major flaws to become apparent. With a reasonable equal in Lois Chiles’ Bond girl and a decent villain from Michael Lonsdale, Moonraker is still the kind of Bond film to be reasonable Bank Holiday afternoon entertainment, but it’s about as far from Fleming’s vision as the series ever got.
17. Tomorrow Never Dies
Pierce Brosnan’s sophomore effort suffers slightly from never being quite sure what it wants to be. Michelle Yeoh gets to be dominant and agressive more often than sexy, which is a good match for Bond but isn’t compensated by Teri Hatcher’s flat portrayal of a woman Bond supposedly has a history with. (Of all the women he’s met, he’s coming back to this one?) The pre-credits sequence is a cracker, but the momentum of Goldeneye slowly dissipates after that, and Jonathan Pryce is at the bottom end of the Bond villain scale. There was a great movie to be made exploring tensions between the British and Chinese; this, sadly, isn’t it.
16. The Man With The Golden Gun
TMWTGG has one thing absolutely in its favour, a class act in the title role in the form of Ian Fleming’s step-cousin, Sir Christopher Lee. Whenever Lee’s on screen, the film instantly becomes more compelling, and it’s a shame he’s a peripheral figure for long stretches. There are other highlights, including (if you put your fingers in your ears) the spectacular bridge gap jump, but the more comedic approach that had started with Diamonds Are Forever really starts to take hold here, bringing back Sheriff J.W. Pepper for even
more less comedic effect than in Live And Let Die and also playing the ending for laughs as well. A mixed bag, but by no means the worst Moore film of the series.
15. The World Is Not Enough
It all started so promisingly, with the boat chase along the Thames, Bond’s injury and subsequent cold shoulder from M and the early scenes with Elektra. Then about half way through we catch sight of Robert Carlyle attempting to be threatening from underneath a challenging look, but that’s nothing to the attempts (if you can call them that) to pass off Denise Richards as a nuclear physicist. Add more flailing from a poor decision to bring back Robbie Coltrane’s thickly accented Russian, and the second half of TWINE gets weighed down by its baggage. It was the first seeds of what Bond has become in the last decade, but those seeds were choked back by a few difficult weeds.
14. Quantum Of Solace
If I’m being completely honest, about 75% of what I love about Quantum Of Solace is Daniel Craig. I was one of the doubters before he first took the role but he’s nailed it so convincingly that even a film of at best middling quality, hamstrung by not enough rewrites from one striking writer and further on-set dabbling, can be elevated significantly by his performance. The first direct sequel of the series, it does make Casino Royale feel like a film of seven acts, as if someone had recognised it had Lord Of The Rings-levels of endings and lopped the last few off into a new film, but between Craig and Judi Dench’s increasing presence in the series as M, QoS does a lot to compensate for some of its more obvious flaws.
13. Licence To Kill
Don’t get me wrong, I love both of Timothy Dalton’s portrayals as Bond, but Licence To Kill is trying far too hard to be a generic American action film rather than a Bond movie – even down to Michael Kamen’s score and some of the desert settings that make it feel oddly like a British Lethal Weapon spin-off – and two weak Bond girls and some uncomfortable lurches in tone do Dalton no favours. It’s a shame this was to be his last entry, but having six years of breathing space actually did Bond a few favours, making this an odd post-script to the first great era of Bond.
12. Dr. No
You can tell I’m a humble blogger and not a practised, literate film critic, when the best description I can come up with of Dr No is “it’s all right”. I’m resolutely whelmed by Sean Connery’s first attempt at the role; it’s got some great moments, from the iconic casino introduction to the cold-blooded bedroom killing, but it never quite takes off, suffering now by comparison to the later films and suffering from hindsight rather than benefitting from it. It does have one of the better villains, and puts a decent number of the regular ingredients in place, but this was a good start, rather than classic Bond.
11. Live And Let Die
The first Roger Moore Bond, and the first to be heavily influenced by other factors in popular culture at the time (other than the general love of spies and secret agents in the Sixties, of course). Moore manages to avoid aping Connery, and Yaphet Kotto manages to overcome the identity shenanigans of the plot to put in a solid baddie. Solid just about sums up Live And Let Die, it’s never truly spectacular in terms of either action or characterisation but never disappoints, as long as your J.W. Pepper tolerance levels are reasonably high. Points also for what remains the best Bond theme to date; even Guns N’ Roses managed a decent cover version of it.
10. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
Regarded by many as the best Bond, and it would undoubtedly have placed higher on my list if it had featured Sean Connery. Actually, it would have placed higher if it featured anyone who could act. Lazenby, having blagged his way into the role in the first place, does his best but frequently looks out of his depth and also helps contribute to a few saggy sections around the middle. The ending has had an impact on pretty much ever Bond made since, and Diana Rigg is undoubtedly one of, if not the, best Bond girls of all time. Sadly, Telly Savalas doesn’t quite work as Blofeld either, and we’re left with a great film with two holes of varying sizes at its centre, but you can see how it’s inspired the likes of Christopher Nolan on to great things.
9. For Your Eyes Only
The last of the three decent Moore Bonds, it would have been a fitting cap to his years in the role. As it is, FYEO is still an effective Bond movie with more weight to it than you’d expect. That’s undoubtedly down to the strong story and themes of revenge that motivate the characters, and even Lynn-Holly Johnson’s role as the annoying youngster with a crush on James doesn’t manage to unbalance the overall effect. The marked reaction to the spacefaring of Moonraker makes for a more grounded Bond, but there’s still cracking set pieces (especially the assault on the cliff top) and there’s a tension here that’s lacking in most of Moore’s other Bond films.
8. You Only Live Twice
Probably the most spoofed of all the Bond series, with likely the most iconic set of elements outside of Goldfinger. It’s not often that a production designer can become a household name, even if only among movie geeks, but Ken Adam’s work on You Only Live Twice helps to mark it out as one of the most memorable Bonds in a visual sense. The Japanese theme gives a different tone to proceedings and helps to mark time until the final, all out blow-out, the grandness of which even this epic series of films has sometimes found hard to top since. Roald Dahl’s script does recycle a couple of Bond staples and Connery’s not at his best, but these are minor distractions.
For someone who seemed such a natural fit for the role and was connected with it for so long, it’s strange that there’s only one genuinely great Pierce Brosnan Bond film, and one in which he hadn’t totally nailed the demands of the role. Occasionally a little too cheesy, he still manages the required gravitas in more serious scenes and handles the mix of tones well. Where Goldeneye scores bonus points is for the Bond girls, the best in the roles in many years, with Isabella Scorupco’s feisty Russian finding Bond’s heart, and if you don’t enjoy Famke Janssen’s utterly over-the-top performance, you maybe need more joy in your life. (Especially her delivery of the line, “He’s going to derail the train!”) Tina Turner’s pounding title song helps ease the pain of Eric Serra’s excellent but completely inappropriate Bond score, and the fight between Sean Bean’s agent gone bad and Brosnan must rank in the top five fist fights of Bond.
6. The Living Daylights
Stepping in when Pierce suddenly found himself otherwise occupied, Timothy Dalton helps to resurrect the series from the worst excesses of the latter day Moore and gives a polished performance with dark undercurrents as Bond starts to steer back closer to Fleming’s original intent. The Living Daylights makes the most of the changing political landscape of the time, taking a plot based around various factions of Russian military power and bolting it to some superb action sequences, with one of the great car chases of the series and a truly insane stunt hanging out of the back of a cargo plane. Maryam D’Abo’s Bond girl is a bit wet at the best of times, but pretty much every other actor is on top form and director John Glen doesn’t waste the opportunity of finally having some decent material and a good Bond to work with. It’s a crying shame Dalton only got to make two, but at least we have this one to savour.
The latest Bond, in a fiftieth anniversary tale that paradoxically draws on the rich history of Bond and attempts to work once again with key elements, but in other ways is keen to put its past behind it and to find its new place in the world order. It’s a strange balancing act to even want to attempt, to be so in love with the past but in need of staying relevant for the future, but somehow Skyfall manages it, for the most part. Javier Bardem is 12A rating threatening, Dame Judi drops the first ever F-bomb of the series (and who’d have thought it would be her) and Bond gets to work closely with both Q and Tanner for the first time, in a surprisingly UK heavy set film. It’s a Bond film that looks gorgeous, is stunningly shot and calmly directed with both a sly wit and a general charm missing from Quantum Of Solace, but that never quite has the action beats to put it among the finest of the series and a plot that follows a recent blockbuster trend of relying too heavily on coincidence. If the remaining Daniel Craig Bonds can couple what’s great here with some of the finer action moments, then there’s still the potential for a best in series in Daniel Craig.
For anyone that’s seen even a good selection of Bond films, the standard to beat is always felt to be Sean Connery’s third outing in the tux, and the first where some of the more outlandish elements of the series first came into play. From Shirley Bassey’s theme song to the Aston Martin DB5, and with the single most famous quote of any Bond film, Goldfinger feels like it should be the best Bond, so it feels somewhat heretical to pick at its flaws. But flaws do exist, not least in the saggy middle that so many Bonds seem to suffer and which also afflicts this one, and from occasionally feeling just a little too far over the top. Connery’s at his laconic best here, often a man of few words and smouldering glances but his reliance on almost supernatural powers of seduction rather than any serious amount of sleuthing leave Goldfinger as the silver standard of Bond movies, rather than the somewhat more appropriately-coloured one.
3. The Spy Who Loved Me
Two days ago, I saw a man outside a cinema pointing at a poster, attempting to encourage his very young son to take an interest in James Bond. I’m not sure Skyfall is the best entry point into the series, but mine was The Spy Who Loved Me and it still works as an excellent introduction, blending together most of the traditional Bond elements and beating just about any other Bond hands down for pure, old fashioned Saturday matinee-style entertainment. When Carly Simon sings “Nobody Does It Better”, it’s hard to disagree, as TSWLM succeeds in marrying You Only Live Twice-style excess to Goldfinger levels of Bond iconography and to make Roger Moore seem stylish and enviable. There’s not a single weak link, although it’s a shame that Jaws’ impact here is retrospectively lessened by his return in Moonraker. (Although when Carly Simon’s next line is, “but sometimes I wish someone could,” do you think she’s still pining for Connery? You’d think this would have cured her of that.)
2. Casino Royale
An all new Bond for a new era, and for the most part a Bond that wasn’t afraid to take chances. Martin Campbell might have returned to the director’s chair again after Goldeneye, but the reinvigoration he performed there is nothing compared to the kick up the backside the series gets here. Craig’s Bond can be brutal, almost thuggish at times, but also has the effortless charm of the best of his contemporaries, and in his pairing with Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd one of the greatest pairings of the series. Bond is damaged goods, and despite being a reboot of sorts (but still with Dame Judi in the top chair) Casino Royale wastes no time in damaging him a bit more. The swap to poker for the central card game works in the context of the film and the modern setting, as do so many of the other choices, the only real failing being a lumpen story structure that feels like it’s carrying an unwanted epilogue. Mads Mikkelsen’s ocularly challenged baddie threatens but never dominates, but the blend of all the elements – especially a number of truly breathtaking action sequences – is pretty much spot on.
1. From Russia With Love
If Goldfinger has turned out to be the stereotype that much of the series followed, and Dr. No remains the prototype, then sandwiched between them and often unfairly overlooked is the archetype for the Bond series. It’s as close as the Bond formula has ever come to being perfected, from the SPECTRE training base and the first glimpses of Blofeld to the stunning train face-off between Bond and Red Grant. Everything is as you’d want it in a Bond film without being taken to excess, and a number of series firsts (including Desmond Llewellyn’s first outing as the quartermaster and Matt Munro’s first song with the title of the film in it) helping to make the Bond formula that still exists today. The recent Bonds have steered closer and closer to this template without ever successfully emulating it, and if only Skyfall had been this successful at both plotting and also a triple whammy of an action finale that just doesn’t let up. The cool, calculating charm that attracts women and makes men just a little bit jealous is all rooted in Russia, and it’s the Bond film I love the most.
How would you cast a new James Bond? Would you be looking to take a mould of Sean Connery, then cast another from it? Is tall, dark and handsome enough to make a Bond, or is there some other ingredient required for the perfect suave, sophisticated spy? Ian Fleming had a very certain idea of what Bond looked like, and Daniel Craig certainly wasn’t it. In the novel of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Bond is described as:
“…certainly good-looking … Rather like Hoagy Carmichael in a way. That black hair falling down over the right eyebrow. Much the same bones. But there was something a bit cruel in the mouth, and the eyes were cold.”
That’s not Craig; but nor does it reasonably describe any of the other Bonds, save for possibly Welshman Timothy Dalton. In the novel of Casino Royale, Vesper also describes Bond as reminiscent of Hoagy Carmichael, but also “cold and ruthless.” In that pure description lies the heart of Daniel Craig’s performance, but what Craig also brought to the part was a sense of humanity and maturity. He also might as well have been green with pink spots as it might have caused less controversy over his looks.
But no matter, all of that CraigIsNotBond nonsense is well behind us now, and it goes to show that it’s not what it looks like, it’s what you do with it that counts. Emboldened by finally being able to exercise the rights option it got to the first Fleming novel in a swapsies deal for Spider-Man rights in 1999 (seriously), the studio embarked on a full-on reboot, taking the idea of reinvention at the fore since Dalton’s first and taking it to its logical conclusion. But Casino Royale captures something that no Bond before it has managed, not even the early Connery films, and that’s to capture a relationship between a man and a woman that doesn’t feel like either a series of cheap jokes or the inevitable advances of a man who’s bathed for a month in pure pheromones.
So without further ado, I present my legacies for the twenty-first EON production, based on the first Fleming novel.
1. James Bond finally comes of age, by going back to the start
We finally get the first adaptation in the official series of the James Bond novel that started it all, the last major novel of Fleming’s series not to be made by EON. In order to adapt this, the series is effectively rebooted, and for the first time all of the history is washed away; Bond is a clean slate, to be started with afresh and with no emotional baggage for an indeterminate number of years weighing him down. As long as you ignore the fact that M still looks the same as the last Bond’s did. Moving swiftly on…
But not only does the film take a fresh approach to the stunts, mixing in a greater sense of realism to the scaffolding-scaling antics, and is also not afraid to take big risks with the structure, devoting most of the second act to the poker game, but writer Paul Haggis seems to be the first person to attempt to take the words of long time story writers Neal Purvis and Robert Wade – or indeed, of anyone else – and to make them sound as if they were emerging from the mouths of two grown adults. Often in the past Bond has sounded close to mature, only to be undercut by a mop-headed Bond girl, or just occasionally (*cough* On Her Majesty’s Secret Service *cough*) the other way round, but here the dialogue sparkles, the performances radiate and even two people flirting on a train is an absolute joy to watch. Just in case you’ve forgotten, see how efficiently Craig and Green even manage to skirt over the obligatory product placement.
It’s this sensible approach, favouring this kind of sparring over cheap chat-up lines, which carries through Quantum Of Solace – admittedly in a slightly more po-faced fashion – and one which I steadfastly hope is keeping pace through Skyfall, and many years of Bond to come, until the pendulum inevitably swings and we end up back at the gurning antics of the later Moore era, probably with Rupert Grint as the first ginger Bond.
2. No Moneypenny, no Q
The other notable achievement of Casino Royale in setting the template for the future is to break it even more wide open. While Live And Let Die had managed to get by without the quartermaster, Casino Royale really does strip it back to the barest bones, with both Q and Moneypenny getting the boot, and staying off for QoS, proving just what it is possible to drop from the percieved “formula” and still make a successful Bond film.
3. Black and white opening, black ending
The other bold decisions, at least in the context of the series, range from the stylistic to the dramatic. At the beginning, we see a black and white sequence, and while the series dabbled with slo-mo as far back as the Sixties, it’s the first time that the colour palette has been drained completely. Now anything goes, opening up Skyfall for the likes of Roger Deakins to come in as DoP, and the sky blue is the limit. Or the green with pink spots.
The ending is also a first, in that in every one of the previous films Bond gets the girl, even if she gets shot in the end. See that rule book? It’s just been torn up and tossed in the bin. Take that, authority, there’s a new Bond in town. Craig’s Bond ends both of his first two films alone, unless you count Dame Judi at the end of Quantum as the Bond girl. (No. Just no.)
Next time: If you had a choice of the remaining Fleming titles, would you pick:
a) The Hildebrand Rarity
c) 007 In New York
d) Quantum Of Solace?
Previous Bond legacy posts: Dr No / From Russia With Love / Goldfinger / Thunderball / You Only Live Twice / On Her Majesty’s Secret Service / Diamonds Are Forever / Live And Let Die / The Man With The Golden Gun / The Spy Who Loved Me / Moonraker / For Your Eyes Only / Octopussy / A View To A Kill / The Living Daylights / Licence To Kill / Goldeneye / Tomorrow Never Dies / The World Is Not Enough / Die Another Day
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