Excessive Force (1993)

PLOT: After a gangster goes free, a cop on the edge wages battle against organized crime and internal corruption while also repairing a romantic relationship, playing jazz piano, avoiding death, and kickboxing with his friends. Can he focus on a single task long enough to actually complete it?

Director: Jon Hess
Writer: Thomas Ian Griffith
Cast: Thomas Ian Griffith, Lance Henriksen, James Earl Jones, Charlotte Lewis, Tony Todd, Burt Young, Tom Hodges


He was a rich industrialist presiding over a company that illegally dumped toxic waste. He freely used racial slurs in reference to an elderly Asian man. He deployed twisted Machiavellian tactics against a young and virtuous martial artist. Despite it all, there was something strangely likable about Karate Kid III’s pony-tailed prick, Terry Silver. The primary reason for this perception was the performance of Thomas Ian Griffith (truly the best part about the film). When you’ve conquered the Mountain of Cult Action Movie Villain Status, there’s only two ways to go: total obscurity, or the Valley of Aspirational Lead Action Star Roles. Starting in the early 1990s, Griffith rattled off starring roles in a dizzying series of action films, of which 1993’s Excessive Force was just one. The title alludes to the film’s action quotient and the inciting incident of police brutality, but also the Herculean effort required to turn the former Terry Silver into a respectable hero.

Chicago cop Terry McCain (Griffith) has been pursuing ruthless mob boss Sal DiMarco (Young) for over three years, and on three separate occasions within that frame of time, DiMarco has slithered away from formal charges. The latest legal case -- following a sting operation and a botched drug deal -- has been thrown out by a gutless judge due to Terry’s physical coercion of a potential witness. Worse yet, DiMarco thinks that the $3 million lost by his dealer in the chaos ended up in the hands of the cops. This means that Terry and his partners Dylan (Hodges) and Frank (Todd) are in the criminal’s cross-hairs. Soon-to-be Captain Devlin (Henriksen) is doing his best to steer his boys in blue away from the danger, but gangsters have a habit of doing gangster shit when money is concerned.

If you like action, romance, and 17-year gaps between a film’s worldwide release and when it got released in Belgium, this is the film for you, gentle reader. The story, written by Griffith, allows his skills (and hair) to shine in a gritty Seagal-esque urban cop role, and no amount of expository dialogue, turtlenecks, or red scarves could have tied him down (despite sartorial efforts to the contrary). He surrounds himself with a strong supporting cast up to the task of playing colorful support characters. Henriksen is forceful and occasionally chilling as Devlin. Tony Todd, with limited screen-time, plays Terry’s ball-busting partner and the two have a natural chemistry. The same goes for James Earl Jones, playing the elderly jazz bar owner and saxophonist, Jake, who’s trying like hell to steer Terry away from the streets and towards his passion for jazz piano. Lewis, despite not having a hell of a lot to do here other than act like a fabulous model and irritated ex, delivers the best line of this or any 1990s action film: “so you just break into my house, get drunk, and feed your cat?" If you disagree, feel free to fight me on the Internet.

Excessive Force is chock full of action film tropes, from big themes of corruption and redemption to more minor details, like cops moonlighting as jazz musicians (see: clarinet-playing Chow Yun-fat in 1992’s Hard-Boiled). The action packs plenty of firepower overall, but because the film fails to build up an opponent as Terry’s physical equal, it hurts the audience’s investment in the outcome of each fight scene. Nor is there any context given for why Terry uses martial arts at all; there’s some kickboxing near the beginning of the film with Frank, but it’s framed as nothing more than friendly competitive exercise between friends. They might as well have been jogging or doing Bikram yoga. Did we need a scene with Terry talking to his dying master or educating the members of the force on the practical application of kenpo karate? Not necessarily, but it would have helped the story to acknowledge that Terry’s fighting skill was dangerous. Instead, he’s painted as an emotionally unhinged, jazz-playing, kickboxing cop, and while these are all cool qualities in isolation, they don’t really make any logical sense as a whole.


All of the right pieces were in place for a great film -- a solid cast, plot twists galore, and mainstream polish -- but after you tally all the points, Excessive Force feels a little conventional. There are good supporting performances and Griffith has the right amount of leading man swagger. However, the story is a bit weighed down by the struggle-juggle of too many plot points and character quirks. Good, not great, but still good.


Amazon, Netflix (disc only).

4 / 7


Force: Five (1981)

PLOT: A group of elite fighters must infiltrate the fortress of a religious nutjob to save the daughter of a U.S. senator. Luckily, there’s a key-holder that looks like a rock right near the entrance.

Director: Robert Clouse
Writer: Robert Clouse, Emil Farkas, George Goldsmith
Cast: Joe Lewis, Sonny Barnes, Richard Norton, Benny Urquidez, Pam Huntington, Bong Soo Han, Ron Hayden, Mel Novak, Michael Prince, Bob Schott



There is a heavily documented rumor that Joe Lewis was Bruce Lee’s first choice to play the part of “Colt” in The Way of the Dragon. Lewis didn’t agree to the role -- there may have even been a personal falling out involved -- but he was ultimately replaced with Chuck Norris, who went on to a fine b-film career and meme-worthy legend. Some fans of the action film genre will look upon this rumor and conclude that had the film been produced as it was originally planned, Joe Lewis would have become every bit the action star as Norris, if not better, given his good looks and decent acting chops. There’s just one problem with this perspective. Joe Lewis did not like any of his martial arts films. He did not enjoy working with action directors. I am not entirely sure he enjoyed acting, but he definitely hated Hollywood. This means that he almost certainly did not like Force: Five, the 1981 film in which he starred, nor was it likely that he enjoyed working with the film’s director, Robert Clouse, who also directed what is arguably the greatest martial arts film in cinema history, Enter the Dragon. I am here to tell you that it is perfectly acceptable to enjoy Force: Five, even if its star abhorred it and the very industry which made it possible.

The 1970s and early 80s were a time of spiritual awakening in Western culture, in which a number of New Age movements rose to prominence as alternatives to conventional religion. The “World Church” of Reverend Rhee (Han) is an isolated group of idealists. Members all wear the same plain white garb adorned with a bullhead patch. Known as the “Palace of Celestial Tranquility,” their home base has all the markings of a peaceful paradise. Members can be observed playing volleyball or creating pottery when they’re not attending the Reverend’s lectures, snoozing in a tent, or being tortured with needles by the Reverend and his guards. Wait, what?

In this paradise, not all is as it seems. The Church’s headquarters are located on a remote island “free from intervention from any government.” Its followers are mostly young people from wealthy families and are obligated to pledge all material possessions (i.e., inheritances) to the good Reverend’s cause. While Rhee is adored by his Church followers, he is deplored by outsiders. The latest attempt on his life is met with swift retribution, as the would-be assassin (Novak) is poked for information (literally!) before being set free in an underground maze where he discovers that the Church’s symbolic emblem isn’t just a fashion statement. His benefactor, William Stark (Prince), is the veritable thorn in the Reverend’s side. Even after Rhee’s henchmen irreparably broke both his legs, Stark continued his efforts to disrupt what he believes is a dangerous cult.

Following the failure of his amateur hitman, Stark tries a different approach: hire martial artist, Jim Martin (Lewis), give him the resources he needs, and get the hell out of the way. The debonair fighter requests five “very special people” for a mission to spring the daughter of a U.S. senator from Rhee’s death grip and bring the cult down once and for all. And by “special people,” we’re talking about characters with traits ready-made for quick introductions in an action movie trailer. Billy Ortega (Urquidez) is the martial artist with kicks nearly as fast as his mouth! Lockjaw (Barnes) is a powerhouse with the strength of ten men! Ezekiel (Norton) is the fighting gambler you don’t bet against! Laurie (Huntington) is all brains and blonde fury! Willard (Hayden) is … well, he can fly a helicopter. If you’ve lost count, this crew is comprised of six people. Again, the title of this film is Force: Five.

Made a full eight years after his classic Enter the Dragon, the film finds Clouse during a declining phase in his directorial powers. It’s a weird thing to say that the director of perhaps the greatest English-language martial arts film of all time never made another great martial arts film, but facts are facts. The films that followed, especially his 1980s output, comprise a minefield of wacky qualities. He put live Daschunds in rat costumes for the 1982 rodent horror Deadly Eyes, tried to make combat gymnastics happen with 1985’s Gymkata, and expected people to pay money to see Jackie Chan walk from a car to a restaurant in 1980’s Battle Creek Brawl. In light of these films, the premise of Force: Five -- where a small group of fighting experts must infiltrate a religious cult to rescue the daughter of a U.S. senator and oh, by the way, avoid a man-killing bull who roams a hidden maze -- starts to look mundane by comparison. A cinematic manifesto against religious freedom? Progressive multicultural-men-on-a-mission action storytelling? A cautionary tale against keeping wild bulls indoors? Nah. It’s probably best to watch this breezy 96 minutes without searching for any deep meaning or critical statements from an auteur. Just call it solid low-budget action filmmaking.

Clouse does what he can to make this film interesting by giving each of the heroes a short introductory showcase before they come together. He keeps the story moving at a brisk pace with different flavors of action set-pieces: motorcycle chases, bar fights, prison breaks, etc. The fighters are great -- Norton and Urquidez in particular look good -- and the situations are occasionally interesting, but the execution in the fight scenes isn’t always there. Like the film on the whole, the action is solid and mostly enjoyable but not especially memorable. Richard Norton mowed some dudes down with water from a prison fire hose. Water as a weapon is usually cool.


Force: Five works well as a men-(and-woman)-on-a-mission action film. There’s a determined group of unique characters with different fighting styles, a fearsome force of evil, and a remote lair inundated with dangerous bells and whistles. It’s not a great vehicle for Joe Lewis, though he is perfectly fine in his role. Nor is it a very good showcase for the non-distinct stylings of Robert Clouse, though it might reside in the upper tier of his filmography. It’s a solid effort that won’t leave you breathless but can knock the wind out of you on occasion.


Amazon, Netflix, eBay.

 4 / 7



Dragon Hunt (1990)

PLOT: Twin kickboxers fight for their lives as an army of misfit mercenaries attempts to hunt them down in the harsh Canadian wilderness. While the flannel is optional, moustaches are required.

Director: Charlie Wiener
Writers: Michael McNamara
Cast: Martin McNamara, Michael McNamara, B. Bob, Sheryl Foster, Heidi Romano, Curtis Bush, Ed Tyson, Charles Ambrose


There's a memorable scene in the 1993 action vehicle Back in Action that finds Billy Blanks's hero character fighting off an identical pair of mustachioed, Zubaz pants-wearing goofs of athletic build and below-average height. "Who ARE those dudes?!" I recall blurting out within the safety of my own stupid brain. It was only a few hours later that I discovered that these particular dudes were Michael (Mick) and Martin McNamara, Canada's own "Twin Dragons." (Ha! Take that, Jackie!) Not only had the twins made a successful living as martial arts instructors in their native country and promoted kickboxing matches all over the world, but they produced three of their own films where they were the stars. 1990's Dragon Hunt, a quasi-sequel-ish follow-up to their debut in 1986's Twin Dragon Encounter, promised double the action, double the facial hair, and approximately eight times the vanity as their first film.

In what one can only assume is an autobiographical tale, the McNamara brothers play twin Canadian kickboxing instructors named Martin and Mick. A twisted creep with a metal hand by the name of Jake (Bob) leads his private army -- er, the People's Private Army -- in framing the twins in a cruise boat hijacking. This act is not entirely without cause, as we observe via flashback that Jake is a previously vanquished adversary who lost his hand in a prior encounter of the Twin Dragon variety. If that's not bad enough, Jake contracts two attractive ladies -- played by Sheryl Foster and Heidi Romano, respectively -- to court the twins and lure them to a secluded island under the guise of a getaway vacation. Before long, the twins are captured by Jake and forced to act as prey in his own twisted version of a most dangerous game. His gang has used every method available to them, up to and including placing ads in "all the mercenary, hunting, and martial arts magazines" in order to find the best hunters, killers, and poachers in the world to hunt the twins down for a $250,000 (CAD) prize. Jake's mercenaries include expert trappers, whiteboy ninjas,  a "beastmaster" in a cowboy hat (Tyson) who owns a furry dog, and a lot of guys with terrible haircuts. The only arbitrary rule: no guns allowed. (Until the climax). Can the twins survive in the Canadian wilderness with the deck stacked against them? Will Jake get his ultimate revenge? Can the cast and crew manage only one restroom among them (per co-star Curtis Bush)?

Let’s get this out of the way: the heroes McNamara are total jerks in this film. At the start of their vacation with their lady friends, one twin snaps a girl’s bra strap while another twin mimes humping the back of the other girl’s head. While driving a boat, one twin pours a perfectly good beer all over one of the gals while she's sitting down and minding her business. The first fatal strike they make against Jake’s army is killing the Beastmaster’s dog instead of the goons for hire. Later in the film, they chase an enemy through the woods while taunting him about his weight. Maybe skull-humping, body-shaming dog murderers are celebrated as heroes in some parts of the world, but not in my house.

As the ruthless gang leader, Jake, B. Bob is both the best and worst thing about the film. His visual look strikes the right balance between loud-mouthed 1980s wrestling manager and walk-on extra in an Italian post-apocalyptic b-movie. His gruff, stilted dialogue ("trained assassins -- ruthless, fanatical, I LIKE THEM") is frequently hilarious and his incessant screaming is appropriate to match the campy tone of the film. However, his constant reliance on reciting fight songs and modified nursery rhymes is grating and not especially funny. If you thought the songs in City Dragon were an insult to the musical form, Jake's improvisations might be regarded as a cultural war crime. A certain segment of the viewing population will be entertained by these segments, and I want nothing more than for these people to fall victim to violent spasms of diarrhea while sitting in traffic.

The action builds in intensity and scale the way it should in genre action films -- Dragon Hunt gets this part mostly right. The rustic trap setting (a la First Blood) becomes more elaborate, the kills get more gruesome, and the firepower becomes louder and more frequent. The major misstep amidst all of this, though, is having two martial artists as stars and not featuring them in more than a couple of fights. Who do we have to blame for this oversight? The star martial artists themselves. One scene finds a twin battling a crossbow-wielding Curtis Bush -- the only other verifiable martial artist in the film, by my estimation -- but it's short-lived and a bit bland. The climax sees the twins deploying every weapon in their arsenal, punches and kicks included, but the fight is dogged by slo-mo and lacks any interesting exchanges or combinations. Instead of going with relative strengths -- actual fighting -- the McNamara twins oddly chose the more "Eighties!" option of traps and guns. This was the film's biggest weakness and a baffling decision when you consider the personnel.


Dragon Hunt is the second in three self-made McNamara films, and regardless of what you think of them from a quality perspective, you have to admire the gusto of the twins' effort. At the the end of the day, though, this story is derivative, the acting ranges from stiff to goofy, and the action isn't executed well enough to counteract the missteps in other areas. An odd, occasionally entertaining curiosity.


The only official copies never made it beyond VHS, so eBay and Amazon are your best bet. Occasional do-gooders have uploaded it to YouTube.

2.5 / 7


A Dangerous Place (1994)

PLOT: A teenage martial artist is thrown into a world of theft and risky behavior while investigating the death of his older brother. Will he find out the truth? And what sorts of cool swag will he accumulate in the process?

Director: Jerry P. Jacobs
Writer: Sean Dash
Cast: Ted Jan Roberts, Corey Feldman, Marshall Teague, William James Jones, Erin Gray, Mako, Dean Cochran, Jason Majik, Erin Gray


The 1984 film The Karate Kid had a lot going for it. Pat Morita was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance as Mr. Miyagi. It featured a charming teenage protagonist with tangible, relatable problems. It set the blueprint for high school gangs of martial arts meatheads. But you know what The Karate Kid movie was missing? A murder subplot! That’s the dropped ball that director Jerry P. Jacobs tried to pick up with 1994’s A Dangerous Place. That ball is covered in blood and pomade from Corey Feldman’s pompador.

Ethan (Roberts) and Greg (Cochran) are two teenage brothers living with their single mom, Audrey (Gray). One might expect the younger Ethan to be the troublemaker when, in fact, it’s Greg who finds himself hanging out with the wrong crowd. As of late, he’s been skipping karate class at the Lions dojo to hang out with the Scorpions gang, a group of suburban karate street toughs led by Taylor (Feldman). The crew goes on joy rides during random weeknights, stealing cars, dirt bikes, electronics, and whatever else catches their eyes -- they run wild with impunity and look cool doing it. (“How come all the best looking girls in school hang out with the Scorpions?") Because they have dirt bikes and nice televisions. Duh!

While Greg hangs with them socially and has represented them in illicit sunset beach fights, he’s not quite a “made” member of the group. After coaxing him into a night-time domestic burglary, the Scorpions turn on Greg when he has a crisis of conscience mid-act. During a physical struggle, Greg gets maced, falls down a flight of stairs, and dies accidentally. How do Taylor and his impressionable friends with behavioral problems respond? If you answered, “they report the accident and serve their time,” you win a prize! The prize is immaculately wrapped and decorated with ribbons. You tear the wrapping paper off to reveal a gift box. The box contains a framed picture of Greg’s prone body hanging from the basketball net at the high school gymnasium. Yep -- these pricks staged his death to look like a suicide. Enjoy your prize, by the way.

Ethan refuses to believe the circumstances surrounding his brother’s death. What about his bike? Never recovered. What about the bruises on his body? Unexplained. Against the wishes of his Sensei (Mako) he wants to infiltrate the gang to find out the truth about that fateful night. He first brawls with a Scorpion member in the cafeteria during lunch to demonstrate his toughness. He slowly befriends the most sympathetic Scorpion member, Eddie (Jones). Finally, he shows up to the Scorpions’ dojo to spar, and later arranges a competitive fight between the Lions and Scorpions to win the approval of the wicked Sensei (and English teacher) Gavin Smith (Teague).

This was my first foray into the action film career of Ted Jan Roberts and while I’m nearly two decades beyond the targeted demographic for this film, I can say that 12-year-old me would think he was pretty cool shit. He’s sort of like Daniel Larusso with Cali mall swagger in place of New Jersey wisecracking. A Jonathan Taylor Thomas with karate skills, if you will. His on-screen fighting is solid and believable, and in a post-Ernie Reyes/Kane Kosugi world, that’s all you can ask out of an adolescent martial arts film star. In terms of screen presence, he’s perfectly fine for this material and the filmmakers wisely avoid the trappings of any sustained emotive drama. Ethan is angry and inquisitive, not depressed and weepy. It’s a bit unnatural since these family members barely react to the sudden death of a brother and son, but this is a movie about teenage karate vengeance, not therapy sessions and brooding introspection.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the contributions of Corey Feldman as the treacherous Taylor. It would have been simple to follow the blueprint of Billy Zabka as Johnny Lawrence in the Karate Kid and play him as a volatile, testesterone-fueled jerk. Instead, he portrays Taylor as sleazy and calculating. Feldman’s fighting technique doesn’t match the skills that his character’s black-belt rank might suggest -- do you really buy his lethal mastery of eagle claw? -- but fight choreographer Art Camacho makes it work regardless. His character’s cold unpredictability and absence of fear of consequences is what makes him tick. Throw in an out-of-time greasy pompador hair style and an everyday affection for black fingerless gloves, and he’s a weirdly memorable 1990s martial arts douchebag.


A Dangerous Place has Corey Feldman popping wheelies on a dirtbike across a baseball field during live game-play while wearing a red gi and black fingerless gloves. What more do you want? Run out and impulsively put some discretionary income down on this film, like the foolish, emotionally distraught teenager you never were.


Amazon, eBay.

4 / 7


Hard Justice (1995)

PLOT: A grief-ridden ATF agent goes undercover as a prison inmate to find his partner’s killers. Will he have time to close the case between shower beatings, prison yard basketball games, and the gastrointestinal issues caused by cafeteria slop?

Director: Greg Yaitanes
Writer: Scott Nicholas Amendolare, Chris Bold
Cast: David Bradley, Yuji Okumoto, Charles Napier, Vernon Wells, Jim Maniaci, Benita Telles, Clabe Hartley, Alon Stivi


Almost nothing in life is easy. Not microwaveable macaroni and cheese (I own a toaster oven). Not Sunday morning (what if you have a hangover)? And certainly not the year 1995; if you want proof, a whopping five films containing the word “hard” were released. One of them was Hard Justice -- a film that combines the directorial chops of Greg Yaitanes, Hong Kong-style action pieces, 40% of the plot from Van Damme’s Death Warrant, and American Ninjalumni David Bradley. “How can I handle all these awesome things at once?” you ask, crying in your microwaveable macaroni and cheese. What -- you thought justice would be easy? Ha! Justice is hard, dummy.

Nick Adams (Bradley), is an ATF agent hot on the heels of gun-running jerkwad Jimmy Wong (Okumoto). After a sting operation goes chaotic, Nick and company are able to bring Wong into custody, but the hostage at the center of their confrontation loses her life. To make matters worse, ATF gal-pal Hannah (Telles) informs Nick that his partner, Manny -- an agent working undercover as an “inmate” in the state penitentiary --  has been knifed to death by unknown assailants. Fueled by guilt, he demands that Chief Dickerson (Hartley) puts him on the same deep cover assignment so that he can root out Manny’s killers.

Once inside, Nick’s struggle to survive is all too real. He becomes fast friends with his rapey cellmate, Mr. Clean (Maniaci), but only after a brutal slug-fest for claim to the top bunk that ends with a discovery of their shared Marine Corps credentials. Nick’s fresh meat status also attracts the unwanted attention of Warden Pike (Napier) and his vicious subordinates. The beatings come swiftly, and due to his anti-authority posturing, his stays in solitary confinement are frequent. As Nick begins to uncover a deadly plot within the prison walls, his old nemesis Wong begins his sentence, and he alone can reveal Nick’s true identity and potentially turn everyone against him.

This film was the tits. The bee's knees. The manatee’s balls. Whatever anatomical euphemism you have for things you find awesome will be uttered during the film’s lean 88-minute runtime. I wrote down the phrase “Hard Justice ain’t fuckin around” four separate times in my viewing notes. While I’d always heard in b-movie action circles that this was not just David Bradley’s best film, but also one of the best action b-movies of the DTV era, I was still surprised by how much I dug it. A big reason for that is the pacing and the plot elements, which Yaitanes juggles well to keep the viewer engaged in what’s happening on the screen. He strikes the right balance between dialogue to move the story forward, and action scenes that help to raise the stakes for the characters.

And those scenes are quite fantastic. From a stylistic standpoint, the action is fun in that melting pot sort of way, when American productions shamelessly ape the blueprints that 1980s Hong Kong flicks provided for both martial arts fights and brainless Western-style shoot-outs. The opening scene of the film owes a lot to the first warehouse gunfight in John Woo’s 1992 film, Hard Boiled, with Nick dropping into the scenery like Chow Yun-fat, and concludes with enough spent shotgun casings to fill a swimming pool. (This is not a complaint; it was a great way to kick off the film). Until the gun-crazy climax, the prison is the backdrop for a number of fights featuring hand-to-hand combat. For me, there were two big stand-outs. Nick and Mr. Clean have their epic disgruntled roommate throw-down and later on, Adams has a brawl in the shower with a gang of thugs that finds him using a towel to counteract their over-aggressive strikes. Does his own towel remain firmly in place despite constant, violent movement? Perhaps to the disappointment of Bradley fangirls and fanboys everywhere, it does.

The supporting cast here was spot-on, with colorful and occasionally strange characters. I could watch Napier bark at subordinates pretty much all day, and he has an especially hammy line while firing twin uzis during a prison riot that had me rolling. Vernon Wells is in prime check-cashing form as the barely lucid prison sage with a Mike Tyson face tattoo, Galaxy 500. Yuji Okumoto, who most will remember as Chozen from the Karate Kid II, is dastardly in that fun movie villain sort of way -- you can tell he’s having a ball in his role. Even the faces I didn’t know were convincing in their characters. Jim Maniaci is amazing as Mr. Clean. Clabe Hartley is an actor about whom I know very little, but he’s apparently moved on from his acting career to work as a successful restaurateur in Venice, California. Somewhat famously, he was involved in separate violent altercations at his restaurant with homeless locals in 2015 -- one bit off part of his finger, and another, just six months later, concussed him with a chair. Who knew the L.A. restaurant business was more dangerous than a David Bradley action movie?


Before I watched Hard Justice, I thought I had all the answers. That I’d already had my fill of chopsocky prison films. That another Charles Napier prison warden role was one too many. That I didn’t need Vernon Wells adorned in a bad face tattoo with a name ripped off from a Boston-based dream-pop band. Hard Justice showed me how bitter and close-minded I had become as an action movie fan. It's over-the-top in a way that so few action films attempt at all, and it bears its influences without a whiff of self-awareness. Very hard recommend.


Netflix, Amazon, eBay.

6 / 7

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