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  1. Off-‘Licence to Kill’ – The Spirit of its 007th Minute

    image by ‘London looks’ (c)

    February already? High time CBn’s resident food critic Jacques Stewart had himself a taste of Eon’s famous 1989 recipe ‘Licence to Kill’ (readers confused by the strange spelling can get help here).

     

    Gourmet readers will find healthy doses of opinion and science-fact in this recipe. CommanderBond.net suggests a claret to go with this grand meal...

     

     

     

     

     

     

    Bituvva scandal in 1989 at the moment about aJames Bond film value-brand “hamburgers”, whatever they might be, being cut with last gasp desperation for dollars horse meat; popular if uninspired product, delivered on a reduced budget, mixed with the unpalatable. At first glance this seems unfair on Eon Tesco, with its record of being reliable, if slightly insipid, with patches of quality – their lead character own-brand meatballs are the dog’s bollocks, for example. Still, unwise to mash up suspect ingredients and pretend everything’s OK, business as usual and this is in some mysterious way defensible. The consumer may well rebel. Or vom.

     

     
    Perhaps we’re so spoilt by recent Gourmet Bond that it’s too easy to sneer at the cheap brands, too easy to buy identical ready meals equally questionably produced but sold in a nicely fonted box that smelly riff-raff cannot read – science fact, French Script MS causes scutters to immolate. Too easy to become the father who proclaims that his offspring go anaphylactic at the merest suggestion of a fishfinger and can only eat Danish pomegranates, Nepalese sushi and Egyptian Cotton. Taste the Difference CraigBond, all fancy and theme-y and hand-reared by posh directors rubbing the finest organic artisan jus into its skin to soothe it, relaxing it into production by giving it its own thoughtyurt and feeding it honeysuckle gravy with a hand-carved Inca lovespoon, or something, is it really going to be any better for your straining, time-bound heart than some reconstituted old bollocks blatted together by a greasy robot? It all comes out as light entertainment in the end.

     

    There’s an argument that the cheap product is a more honest conspiracy between producer and consumer than asserting that because one’s Bond comes with shavings of free range, corn-fed cin-eh-mahhh on it, it’s better. If one acknowledges it cost tuppence to make then one is braced for it to be foul and there’s no point whining. How can it disappoint? You know that the film you’re masticating through is fungal gristle chivvied from the crevices of the Bond factory floor, bulked up with mechanically-separated violence; horrid, but still you partake.Perhaps it’s a guilty pleasure; there you go, pretending to like quadruple-fried free-range yam croquettes and Swiss Lobster when what you really crave is Scampi Fries and a box of damp Micro chips. In white bread. With marge.

     

     

    It’s fatuously snobbish – and eyegougingly ironic, given the source of the comment – to liken some Bond products as being savourable at Sardi’s and others munchable at McDonald’s. I am fatuously snobbish. C’mon, you’d guessed. Even knowing full-well that Bond Sixteen wasn’t dealt a happy hand from the get-go, even knowing full-well that as a result I should be more forgiving and try to emphasise the points at which it outshone its meagre origins, even knowing full-well that I should accept that it was going to be dreadful and therefore spare all of us, myselfincluded, pointing that out at overconsiderable length, taking all those potential excuses into account it’s still, without doubt, one of the most disappointing films I’ve ever sat through.


    Licence to Kill, the budget “all” “beef” patty of the Bond series, gelatinous spumes of “DNA matter” of other things hacked into it, its ideas “ripped from the headlines”, although those from which they’re ripped are about contaminated cheapo cynical fast-buck zero-quality hope-we-get-away-with-it contempt for the consumer rancid gutdross. The more maggot-ridden,  reconstituted and cheap offcuts of A. Bond. Film swept up from the dusty warehouse of Bond (Q, naff sight gags, Q, dodgy back projection, visual sogginess, questionable garb and overextended finales and Q in at least three stupid hats) – wit, style and a decent haircut being beyond the budget – cut with an exciting new ingredient: other films’ violence.  Sporadically, entertainment accidentally enters the production process and it’s upsetting because that can’t have been intentional. His bad side might be a dangerous place to be, but his dismal cheap crud side is undoubtedly a nasty one.

     

     

    There’s a suggestion that time will prove kind to Licence to Kill given that a troubled blood brother, Quantum of Solace, made lots of money (albeit cost a lot more) despite being equally problematic for many. Something in that, and it is disappointing for Timothy Dalton – and the perception of “Timothy Dalton” as a shorthand for his tenure – to be lumbered with this awful failure, but Quantum of Solace seems conceived as a film first and A Bond Film about ninth, and it’s questionable whether such a discreditable concept was ever on the list. This, on the other hand, tries to flaunt its Bondfilmness and its “otherness” as equivalents, brilliantly achieving neither one thing nor the other; perversely successful in that it’s not stylish enough to merit consideration as a Bond nor exciting – or, frankly, violent – enough as a Joel Silver clone. So nervous in conception, it hasn’t got the cojones to jettison the Bond clichés, a cojoined twin consistently trying to hit the other head but using the wrong fist, flailing around until it falls over on a both faces and/or a collective noun of botty-bots. It has no idea what it wants to be, bit like me at sixteen, admittedly; I was thinking AJP Taylor impersonator. Still get the odd hen night booking though, round Swindon way.

     

     

    If the intention – one  born out of trying to keep money rolling in than any creditable artistic vision, come now – was to demonstrate that Bond, with all its Q-y, Moneypenny-y, X-ray camera-y, Binder-y built up canker of n-too many decades nailed aboard, could still go bullet-to-bullet with swearing men with mullets/bullets, using years-past-their-sell-by-date ingredients as garnish, it’s an intention sore mistaken. The only thing it succeeds in having in common with them is their awful music, and the Special Agents Johnson. I know that’s an unoriginal conclusion but if you’re looking for novelty than you’ve come to wrong film/review/reviewer.  The decision for GoldenEye to shrug off the shame and ramp up the BONDness, absence breeding fondness, was a superficially far shrewder one albeit time’s been really unkind to that one (and in due course I shall be no kinder).

     

     
    Some advocates of Licence to Kill (there must, statistically, be some – there are, after all, advocates of Wolverhampton, handguns and dog buggering) would assert that its legacy is not that toxic and the experiment must have worked given that a ) we are yet to see Lethal Weapon 23 so Bond Wins Yay! and b ) the likes of yer Weapons Lethal and yer Deaths Hard went the other way and developed avuncular Moore-like spasms of cosy routine and c ) just take a look at the Bond films now, they’re hard and violent and dark. It was before its time.

     

     

    This being the internet, having just invented a ludicrous proposition that no-one adheres to, I must now knock it down mercilessly in order to justify the imminent expression of my own rancid and insidiously right-wing view, so I most righteously rule, yay me. So, in order – a ) I sincerely hope we don’t see any such thing although I doubt this is Licence to Kill’s victory – it demonstrates that such transient, limited concepts weren’t really worth mimicking and reinforces the lack of wisdom on display in Licence to Kill and b ) well, see a ), yeah?; and c ) yes, OK, but that’s because they compete with proper films, ones with stories and acting and characters and that sort of nonsense. Skyfall is not Licence to Kill’s legacy. The Bourne Legacy, arguably. It wasn’t before its time: it was very much of its time and it just couldn’t cope. The care, the craft, the actually-bothering of the recent run of films don’t enhance Licence to Kill’s standing; they make it look even more paltry.

     

     

    Some achievement as Licence to Kill was already a depressingly poor film depressingly poorly filmed. Overlit and terribly blandly depicted, be it via unenthralling design or where and how the camera’s pointing, a shocker because The Living Daylights possesses gloss and lustre and, whatever its demerits, at least A View to a Kill looks splendid. Whether Licence to Kill’s absence of charm and panache is due to the low budget is moot. One can throw a lot of money at these things and still emit The World is not Enough or Quantum of Solace and although I’m very fond of that latter film, I couldn’t in all honesty defend it as Two. Hundred. Million. Dollars well spent. But does low budget mean Licence to Kill has to look it? Whatever the opposite of spectacle is – testicle? – it’s that.

     

     

    A frequently expressed criticism, and I’m sure I haven’t made this up, is that it comes across as a TV show – a television licence to kill the Bond series, as “t’were” – and whilst the parallels with Miami Vice are obvious / lazy given the subject-matter, I take the observation to be more about look and feel generally, rather than any particular programme. Cheerfully admitted that there weren’t many massive tanker chases or waterskis-to-aeroplane transfers on yer average telly show – excepting whenever Dynasty took its loony drugs – and equally cheerfully admitted that those two splendid sequences are plainly where money was spent, and to good effect; but the rest of it is so, so dull to look at. Easily the poorest Bond film visually, unenthusiastically making the least of a stultifyingly characterless roster of locations. The sporadic perk –the Otomi Centre thingy –  isn’t enough to make up for interminable scenes in interiors hijacked from a telenovela, borrowed along with the quality of “acting”, little more than histrionic melodraman punctured by epileptic atonal twangdom.

     
    I’m not arguing that all Bond films must have secret volcano lairrrrs, albeit oddly in its passive-aggressive attitude to the rest of the series, Licence to Kill is one of the few that tries to play on that with the helicopter/panel trick, even if the hidden base is considerably less engaging than the exterior, just a factory. Let’s be kind and aver that this is a witty reversal of audience expectation, instead of cost-cuttingly showing us dull things. You can comfortably replace “Let’s be kind” with “Let’s lie outrageously optimistically” if you crave. It’s an anti-location, with bog-all happening in the parts of it that are interesting to look at. There’s an argument that this is an intentional negative-image approach to a Bond film, highly subversive in a way, also carried through in the notions that Bond goes rogue and the female lead demonstrates employable skills. Well, it’s an argument, but it’s clobbered by the unwelcome presence of Q and his magic bag of silly rubbish.

     

     

    This isn’t stating that simply by spending more money Licence to Kill would have been better. Much more was shamelessly wasted on Die Another Day and look at that (cautiously). A more stylish attitude to presentation may have helped the film, but it would only be cosmetic: the problems lie deeper.

     
    The concept.

     

    James Bond, enraged, although never really coming across as more than really very cross indeed, undertakes a mild rampage and defies his orders, orders from a boss who tries to have him shot – subversive and interesting and a mite inexplicable – but a boss who comes round in the end – comfy and yawn and totally bloody typical. Far more interesting would have been to lift the idea from For Your Eyes Only, that M abuses power to use Bond as a private killer, and Bond, in obeying such orders, comes to doubt the value of his (ahem) Licence to Kill in a film actually about the (ahem) Licence to Kill and what it stands for, rather than a film about not having one.  Fine, they wouldn’t have dared do this sort of thing in 1989, because M was all cakey and avuncular and had eyebrows like snapshots of frozen fire, and corruption of high office was unheard of despite the fact they’ve evidently rumbled Frederick Gray by this juncture. Wouldn’t put it past Eon to try this now, though – that Mallory looks deucedly shifty, if you ask me. One reading of Skyfall – or as the Missus Jim is wont to call it, Scuffle –interprets the Dench’s use of Bond as pretty much that corrupt way anyway, therefore deserving what she got, the hateful ratbag.

     

     

    The catalyst for dulldom is Felix Leiter – onscreen for fifteen minutes all told in the Bond films to date, achieving such a level of charisma in the preceding film that he was outacted by his pastel blouson – being fed to a shark. Yes, it’s from Fleming, yesyesyes. I know. But Fleming used it only as an incident and whilst it gives Bond fleeting motivation and impetus in the latter stages of Live and Let Die, it’s not the entire plot. One could indulge in imagining Ian Fleming’s mind – wouldn’t mind the swanning off to Jamaica and the drinking myself into oblivion, although I could do without the regularity of the gonorrhoea, thanks – and proposing that the point of the Leiter/shark interface – and that it happens offscreen, or at least “offpage” – is that Leiter wasn’t much of a character and this was a means of getting him out of the story. Throughout the Bond books, what is it really that Felix Leiter does other than provide the author with a means of delivering culture-differences via dialogue rather than description? This may be why he’s never worked (or been necessary) onscreen; we can see those things for ourselves. As a plot device he has significance in Casino Royale; otherwise he’s just hanging around giving Bond someone to look better than. Is that enough to generate feeling in the audience?

     

     
    Basing a two hour film on a convenient plot device for disposing of an inconvenient plot device seems insubstantial at best; at worst, cheesedream delusional.  The middle ground between having too much plot in The Living Daylights and damn-all plot here gets itself filled with lifeless guff about cornering the drugs market by selling petrol-flavoured cocaine (erm, ok) and/or shooting down an airliner with a stinger (which, given Sanchez’s appalling aim demonstrated later, is optimistic) but it’s all talk. On we plod until Bond gets his Leiter out (what a pun. Oh, clever film-makers, you), flambés the badhat and suddenly one remembers the motivation, how nasty it was, although recollection is immediately undermined by having Leiter in a better humour than he was at the wedding.

     

     

    Understandable: he married a blonde cretin many years his junior (subversive statement about a decrepit RogBond retiring with Stacey Sutton?) and whilst there’s a spectacular pull of a punch in being coy about what it is that young lusty Dario does to Mrs Leiter, and whether he does such things before or after he’s unloaded his barrel into her, one assumes thatthe significance of the marriage is to give those of us aware of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service some payoff twenty years later. So, basing your new presentation on one incident from a book and upon the yet-to-be-rehabilitated least popular Bond film to that point, both doubtless dear to a fanbase but perhaps a little abstract for a wider audience, that’s bound to cram you with dollars, isn’t it? There may be, for those seeking continuity (fruitless, tragic), an argument that Bond’s anger about the killing of another man’s wife is recognition of his failure in relation to his own bereavement and all this is as much out of guilt as any actual feeling for the Leiters.  An interesting character beat, but in the context of the way the films panned out between 1969 and 1989 it doesn’t wash and the search for continuity by imposing it on Licence to Kill emphasises more explictly the absence of it otherwise.

     

     

    Guessing I don’t buy the significance of the Leiter character as set-up, and even seen as a single, stand-alone film, it’s questionable whether the relationship demonstrated in the first fifteen minutes is sufficient to convince that Bond would actually go a bit bonkers because. Perhaps more scenes with Leiter would embed the friendship – but then I argue against meself  by requiring “more Leiter” when there’s really so very, very little to give. There was more development in the Bond/Saunders stuff last time out. Hey ho, chipping away at a Bond film for a preposterous plot devoid of believable emotion is too easy; sum total, though, is that this is just as ludicrous, just as Bond film, as Nazis on a Shuttle, even if it so desperately wants to deny that it and Moonraker are cut from the same cloth.

     

     
    Such denial is fatally undermined by the  principal weakness. Q. Until he appears for his statutory rubbish, there’s some interest, some concern that Bond is out of his depth against a very, very nasty villain (albeit one who employs imbeciles) and it will be fun finding out how he gets out of this one and… oh God, it’s Q, it’s gadgets – an exploding alarm clock? Why? – and it has to happen because it’s a Bond film that doesn’t want to be a Bond film yet clings desperately onto the ingredients of a Bond film in a cynical, bipolar love/hate relationship lifestyle choice. Oh well, Q’s turned up, so much for “on his own” and “rogue” then. SIS operatives provide him with far more help here than at any other time. Boredom sets in, it really is only a James Bond film after all, despite its pretence, and not a very appealing one as it turns out.

     

     
    Time and again I have read that Q is the saving grace of Licence to Kill, bringing “warmth” and “humour” and “hats” and making it look like a “proper” James Bond film. Personally – and you may have grasped this by now – I think introducing the character is lazy, totally unlikely in the circumstances and reinforcement of the impression that this was spineless radicalism. Rather than design the story first and then see what, if any, of the Bond film “staples” would fit it and, should they be nonsense or hold things up, dare not to use them – the current films–  this is utterly in thrall to shoehorning the usual in. Returning to that tortured analogy of the horseburgers, the unwelcome ingredient here isn’t the violence but the tired, so very tired, Bond film stuff. They just couldn’t let go, could they? The Bond elements aren’t special enough, overcompensating with daftness that leaves the overall tone a mess, and the much-vaunted violence isn’t really that violent in comparison to the other action films of the age and therefore the brilliant trick of trying to deceive a core audience and a generic action audience into parting with their cash…

     

     
    …didn’t work.

     

     
    Was it the violence that put people off? Wayne Newton turning up and being… a bit odd? The divergent tone brought on by cynical compromise? Had we just had enough? There’s a school of thought that Licence to Kill was doomed to fail in 1989 whatever its qualities because of the strength of other films that summer. Well, maybe, but that tends to ignore its lack of qualities in overemphasising those of others. A dull promotional campaign is frequently cited. But it’s a dull film, so a more tenable criticism of the marketing is “honest promotional campaign”. Even if the position holds, a more distinctive and less artistically cowardly film, a braver take on Mondo Bondo unsmeared by the usual cack, would have the merit of having been a glorious failure.  They surely had enough money by then; an opportunity to try something new. They only pretended to take it.

     

     
    In the lead-up to the 007th minute, compromise abounds. We have a – let’s be nice – novel take on the gunbarrel music, comically and melodramatically fraught, but over the same old images; it’s just another Bond film, it really is. It wants to be a Bond film and pretends it’s not; duplicitous little weasel. Gwilson tells us some gibberish and a ‘plane lands at an ugly-looking island, there’s some genuinely rotten acting about “the green light” – Gatsby believed in it, y’know – and it all starts at a merry old lick of exposition and then a man’s heart is cut out. Offscreen. Mola Ram, did he die in vain? Sanchez is so evullll he’s not actually wearing socks. Mr Hedison runs in hilarious slow-motion, but then he is quite old, and TalisaSoto is out-acted by some splintered packing crates although she is ridiculously pretty and this seems like reason enough to have her tag along. There haven’t really been that many examples of the perceived habit of the Bond films to have total dimwit clotheshorse bimbo characters in them and yet here, in this highly revolutionary shake-it-all-about effort, we have our winner. Has it been edgy so far? Well, there have been whippings and knifings and stranglings and gunfights and appalling morning suits and boring estuaries so it’s all very Fleming because this is what weddings in his blessed Kent are actually like. More sunshine in Flordia, perhaps. Fewer drug dealers though.

     

     
    Amusing bit when the Sanchez ‘plane skims its wing on the airstrip, and we come to…

     

     
    0.06.00 – 0.07.00 Licence to Kill

     
    Let’s go fishing, then. Oddly emphasised by T-Dalt, as if this is a payoff of an earlier reference to going fishing (which, if memory serves, is in the novelisation albeit only then crops up later in the film); not having included it makes this sound strange. Still, the concept of the stunt is OK, s’pose, but, as is so very Licence to Kill, judgment in its execution is lacking.
    Bit of Bond theme to introduce a thing that James Bond would do, nice shot of the helicopter creeping up on Sanchez’s ‘plane, Bond a-dangle. All super so far, there’s patently a man doing that, a long way up in the air. Humorous little moment with Sanchez blithe to it all, humming himself a nice tune, wondering what he’s going to have for his tea – possibly something eggy?- and…

     

     
    And now comes the problem.

     

     
    Evidently Timothy Dalton is athletic and happy to give things a try. Addressing criticisms that too many of the Moore films patently have “James Bond” doing stuff that an increasingly decrepit Roger Moore wouldn’t – or couldn’t – do, here they show the actor doing the action. Worked well for The Living Daylights pre-credits. I was going to state that the idea has merit but on the evidence of this (and the model work on the drugs-bag fight inserts in the previous film), tend now to the view that the more convincingly a lead actor could do the stuff, the less need there is to actually show him doing it if you don’t have the means/will to make it look good. I accept this point assumes that the money spent on computergrafting Mr Craig’s face onto a skydiver or a motorcyclist was worth it, which is also dubious. It’s only if by dint of body shape or hair colour that actor and stuntman are radically different that one may need a few insert shots now and again to try to pretend that it’s the same man all along, but the execution of this scene is such that it undermines the credibility – and danger – of the real man dangling above a ‘plane multiple feet above the sea/ground/death.

     

     
    Look at it – here comes the helicopter, hoving into view and that’s definitely Timothy Dalton hanging outside it. Fine. Except the aeroplane beneath him patently isn’t moving. Not saying that I would have expected Mr Dalton to actually do the stunt, particularly as I have shares in a number of insurers and don’t want them going under, but the illusion is dwindling now. No budget to have someone on the ground rock the model back and forth? Oddly, he seems to be being lowered out of the helicopter by a much younger Felix Leiter than the genial old codger we’ve been used to so far. His hair’s grown black, and back. Oh no, my mistake, here he is in close-up, performing the dangerous stunt of spooling out wire.

     

     
    There were odd statements about Licence to Kill coming out of the producers at the time; one of the more noxious was emitted in the book The Making of Licence to Kill with a presumably sanctioned part entitled “After Moonraker” and proceeding to castigate that glorious spectacle as if this rot is fit to lick its moonboots. Moonraker does indeed have curious artistic decisions, amongst them its high-altitude opening being marred by flappy-hand Jaws, flailing about. Meanwhile, back at the radical, new and energetic and not at all ridiculous Licence to Kill, we are now presented with flappy-hand Bond, flailing about. It’s such progress. “After Moonraker”? Pah. Same as bloody Moonraker and twice as stoopid.

     

     
    Timothy Dalton, trussed up like a turkey, haplessly spinning around, looking for proper direction. A coded signal to the producers? State of the Bond series in a nutshell, that. Flappy-flappy, spinny-spinny, gurny-wurny. Putting the awful into awfully dangerous, nice stuff such as the lovely shot from above when the stuntman does touch the tail of the ‘plane is undermined by putting The Actor Timothy Dalton into a baby bouncer and dangling him twenty feet off the ground.  I’m not sure any other Bond suffered an equivalent indignity, save perhaps for Mr Brosnodge being rendered totally as a CGI surfist, albeit that made him thinner and more richly nuanced an actor.

     

     

    Fun double-take from Robert Davi, probably disbelief that the laws of physics have not intervened to tip the aeroplane nose upwards and have it spinning out of control. Big performance from him throughout the film, Sanchez is a splendidly watchable villain, albeit it’s a wonder how someone quite so easily deceived is as powerful as he is; also, what’s happened to all of his socks. That said, he has surrounded himself with perhaps the most nicompoopy bolus of nincompoops yet for a Bond villain, presumably devised and cast not to distract from the principal bad guy. Shame that we don’t see more of Dario or the manner in which Sanchez kisses him in his chopper.

     

     
    Looks quite dangerous, that cord, swinging about although to be honest I’m more diverted by Timothy Dalton’s barnet. What’s going on there then, unless again he’s playing a subtle game by suggesting that this is all going to be James Bond’s Very Bad Hair Day Indeed. Things were indeed about to turn nasssTy; already had, really. By the time it gets to that casino scene and he’s gone for the challenging look called “embalmed”, you do wonder whether, with all this silly, helpless, trussed-up handiflap on show here in addition to whatever it is that was rescued from the Exxon Valdez and nailed to his forehead, there wasn’t some secret attempt to make James Bond look completely ridiculous. Then you contemplate the rest of the film and realise that they didn’t really keep their attempt much of a secret.

     

     
    Again, coincidence of time or design that a “moment” happens right on 0.07.00, the outrageous hauling in of the aeroplane, and that’s sufficiently extrovert an incident to pass muster but…

     

     
    0.07.00

     

     
    …so little else does.

     

    I acknowledge that I have whinged a lot here. There’s a reason for this. I used to think Licence to Kill was great. I was fifteen when this first came out and the violence appealed to me hugely, and I expect I was the target audience for that. Whips, exploding heads, skewering, immolation. Magic. Lots of killings. Yeah. Talk to me say 1990 and you’d hear me proclaim this as the best Bond film, although I’d also proclaim Johnny Hates Jazz as the future of music, so what the bleedin’ chuff would I know? The “hiatus” did us both some good, I suspect. We were on a break. I went off and found someone else to love and Bond went away and asked itself some very searching questions and probably did a bit of crying and moved back in with its mum for a few years.

     

     
    As time trickles on, one comes to see what a sorry amalgam of tatty old bit-parts Licence to Kill is, how weary it is both in conception and execution, how end of days it all seems to be, how betrayed my affections were. I spurn it now as an embittered ex-love. Forgive and forget? Neither; never.  James Bond may not be the world’s most sophisticated concept, the books are throwaway nonsense, but Licence to Kill demonstrates that it really did take effort to make trash look good; as with Fleming’s writing, the method of delivery was the series’ saving grace to that point. A mid-course deviation to oblivion, a cheap, unenthusiastic and unstylish retreat into moribund norms, Licence to Kill demonstrated that they were out of ideas; out of nerve. It was over.

     

     

    But it wasn’t over.

     

     
    James Bond will return in the 007th minute of GoldenEye. Jacques Stewart bears more grudges than lonely High Court judges.

    Helmut Schierer @ 2013-02-13
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