Best Action Scenes of All-Time: Bruce Lee Edition - The Part-Time Critic

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Best Action Scenes of All-Time: Bruce Lee Edition

*Last updated: 8/13/2022.

Is Bruce Lee the most overrated martial arts star of all-time? No. Not even close. However, my basic view is that his legend has grown much larger than the actual martial-arts sequences he left behind. After getting his big break on television programs like The Green Hornet in the 1960's, Lee became best known for his four feature length films coming out in the early 1970's and an unfinished film called The Game of Death that was released around 1978 and remastered in 2000. These films, coupled with his fighting philosophies and his pop culture impact have created a legacy and influence that few other individuals can claim.

Despite his immense legacy and credentials as a martial arts practitioner and teacher, I find his filmed action sequences to be mostly mediocre. Bruce Lee’s primary principles in fight choreography seem to be quickness, impact, and simplicity. In most of his fights, the actual choreography is short and is punctuated by a series of quick kicks to take his opponent out. While it is flashy and when filmed right can be brutal and fun to watch, it’s over very quick for the viewer. This was a purposeful departure from the more acrobatic and intense back and forth choreography that was traditional in Chinese kung fu and wuxia films as well as Chinese opera. 

A lot of this list will boil down to my personal preference in filmed fighting, but I do want to address one myth that I think many popular level fans think: Bruce Lee was the action bridge from the clunky punches of James Bond to the more intense, realistic, and exciting fight choreography we see today. This is just plain wrong. If the only movies you watched at the time were western action films, then this might be true (for you) and Lee's Hong Kong films might have been a revelation. However, complicated and interesting fight choreography was already happening in Hong Kong films for decades. For example, check out this clip from the 1971 film The New One-Armed Swordsmen directed by kung fu film legend Chang Cheh; it came out the same year as Lee's first major film The Big Boss. The films that followed shortly after Bruce Lee, especially in the efforts of Lau Kar Lueng, Yeun Woo-Ping, and Jackie Chan would easily eclipse and outdo most of Lee's sequences. This isn't his fault, but when doing retrospectives, it is an important part of the context. I've no doubt if Lee had lived longer he would have made better sequences and worked with better directors. Lee advanced martial arts cinema, became a huge star, and put his own personal stamp of charisma and philosophy on the genre. That's important to note. He did not, however, revolutionize the quality of fighting from cave man punch kicking to the complicated choreography we see today.


Before we jump into the action rankings, I'll briefly share my views and rankings of Lee's filmography:

5. The Big Boss (1971) C- : Bruce Lee’s first major film and, despite the commercial success, you can tell that he is struggling to his footing here. The story is about as basic as it gets: there’s some crime shenanigans going down at his factory and Bruce’s friends and fellow workers are harmed. Bruce steps in to investigate and ultimately take down the “Big Boss.” Unfortunately, the fight scenes are pretty basic here as well. Still, despite the poor quality of the production and basic story/action, you can see glimpses here of the charisma that would make Lee into a superstar.

4. The Game of Death (1978) C: There's a lot of discussion today about bringing back dead actors using modern computer technology, but the controversial The Game of Death is one of the original films pushing the ethics of right and wrong with the use of posthumous film footage. Bruce was riding high from the success of The Big Boss, Fist of Fury, and Way of the Dragon. He began shooting fight footage with major fighters and celebrities, including Kareem Abdul Jabbar, in anticipation of making his biggest adventure film yet. In the middle of shooting the film, he would get the Enter the Dragon offer, so he put his adventure film on hold and made that picture. Lee would die after shooting Enter the Dragon and he left something like 30 minutes of fight footage for The Game of Death. The production company hired the director behind Enter the Dragon to craft a story around the fight footage and use doubles and other footage to make it all work. The result is an odd film centered around a group of gangsters trying to pressure Bruce into giving them a cut of his salary from his successful action film career. Bruce must fake his death and go underground to take out the gangster's group one by one. I get why many would say this is exploitation (and it kind of is), but as a fight fan, I'm glad the company tried to get this iconic fight footage out to his fans. The surrounding film isn't that great, the doubles and spliced in footage is odd, but the actual fight goods with the man himself are so memorable and interesting it would have been a shame to see them wasted. For that alone, I'm glad this was done. I'm aware of the "restored" pagoda sequences in 2000's Bruce Lee: A Warrior's Journey and they are certainly better - but they lack the context of a film. Without that, I really won't consider them for a list like this.

3. Enter the Dragon (1973) C: I think this is easily the most overrated Bruce Lee film of all-time. The story is pretty basic and easy to follow: Bruce Lee, a Shaolin trained fighter, is recruited by the CIA to join a fighting tournament populated by a bunch of interesting characters that is being hosted on a private island by a suspected crime Lord - Han. The tournament setup allows for a series of fights, the CIA setup adds an additional espionage element, and we also learn that Han's goons were responsible for the death of Lee's sister. All of this setup produces a pretty mediocre series of fights and action sequences. In fact, we eventually realize that there wasn't much of a roster of fighters to begin with and the tournament itself is just abandoned. That's my biggest gripe here with this film, it's just mediocre stuff that never really fully develops anything it sets up or gives us any element that stands out amongst its peers. The entire thing just doesn't come close to living up to the gigantic shadow it casts on martial arts cinema. 

2. Way of the Dragon (1972) C+: Bruce's third film was directed and written by him and there is a breezy kind of vibe to it that makes it fairly easy to watch and enjoy. Bruce is sent to Rome to help his cousins who are running a Chinese restaurant there. Unfortunately, there are some gangsters pressuring the family to sell the restaurant to a crime syndicate. Bruce proves a valuable resource in the conflict as he helps fight off the gangsters. These initial sequences are pretty tame and forgettable stuff. Still, the laid back tone, fish out of water comedy, and romance subplot are pleasurable enough during the midsection of the film as we await the major fight showdowns. Eventually the gangsters call on some big names to take out Bruce Lee and we get a couple of strong fights, the first coming against Bob Wall. The final fight is Bruce Lee's iconic fight with Chuck Norris, which as you will see later on the list, my vote for Bruce's best action sequence. 

1. Fist of Fury (1972) C+: I think Bruce Lee's second film with director Wei Lo is probably his best overall film, but that's unfortunately a pretty low bar to cross in my opinion. I enjoy the traditional kung fu setting here, telling the story of Chen Zhen (Bruce Lee) trying to avenge the death of his master Huo Yuanjia who was poisoned by Japanese invaders. Huo Yuanjia is a genuine historical figure (whose story is largely fictionalized in Chinese films) and is probably most famously played by Jet Li in the film Fearless. Insulted by the Japanese occupation and killing of his master, Zhen swears to take the Japanese villains on. The opening and closing are strong while the rest of the film is decent and passable stuff.  It's the fight scenes that make this film a stand out from Lee's other endeavors for me. The fights here are less plentiful in number than other features, but the ones we get are high quality, memorable, and doing some genuinely interesting things with the camera. In my opinion, the early dojo sequence and the finale sequence have hard a much larger impact on the martial arts cinema than the much more popularly revered Enter the Dragon. If you only had one film to enjoy and understand Bruce Lee, then I think this is the one you should seek out. 

Lee's best stuff is still very good and for many Westerners, it was probably the first really good martial arts sequences they ever saw. To get a better understanding of his legacy I watched every action sequences in the five films that cover his filmography and ranked them below. I'll provide commentary on Lee at his worst and Lee at his best. I hope to highlight why I think his legacy has developed and the sequences that support it while also identifying his weaknesses.

All Bruce Lee Action Sequences Rated and Ranked

GRADE: C-
Mediocre sequences that have some flaw or issue I find somewhat insulting or offensive.

20. “Bruce Lee vs. the Italian Mafia feat. the Light Kick” -Way of the Dragon (1972)
- Commentary: When Bruce Lee is at his worst...his action sequences are very similar to what Van Damme and Seagal would use as their bread and butter - the humiliating defeat of incompetent bad guys. For Lee, these sequences would be fairly short and consist of lame looking bad guys offering up limp punches or kicks (if anything at all) only to be knocked unconscious by a quick kick. Rinse and repeat this with un-engaging camera composition and editing and you have yourself a mediocre fight sequence. If we are being honest, basic television productions produce technically better fight scenes in their sleep than many of the sequences listed above. This sequence is a good example - but Lee primarily watches his students losing to thugs and then he gets involved by swiftly kicking them into submission. It's...just not that good. The scene ends when Lee kicks out a hanging light and convinces a bad guy to scram.

19. "Hsu Chien vs. Village Bullies II: Bruce Lends a Hand" -The Big Boss (1971)
- Commentary: Hsu Chien has already beaten up a few village bullies who refused to pay for food in the market. In this scene the bullies return at night and while Hsu Chien is fighting them again, Bruce Lee steps in to help just a bit. It's not much of a fight and Bruce barely does anything, but it's kinda lame and for completionist sake, I want to include it in the list.


GRADE: C
Mediocre sequences that lack anything that makes them stand out. Decent, but forgettable.

18. “Bruce Lee Introduces Italian Thugs to Chinese Boxing” -Way of the Dragon (1972)
- Commentary: Some Italian thugs are harassing a Chinese restaurant in Rome. They are invited into the alleyway for a fight. The newcomer from Hong Kong, Bruce Lee, gets a chance to show the thugs some of his moves. At first he jokes around kinda mocking a foreigners view of Chinese martial arts, but then he clicks in and takes the thugs out with one or two strikes each. Not my kind of cinematic fighting, but it's serviceable stuff.

17. “Bruce Lee Breaks Up a Melee Attacking Striking Workers” -The Big Boss (1971)
- Commentary: After two workers go missing (they were killed by the boss because they discovered his drug business) the workers at the ice house won't work until the boss tells them what happened to the missing workers. Several of the boss's men then fight the workers to break the strike. It's a big scale fight that's very simplistic and dated in choreography, but the key here is that Bruce stays out of it. Then Bruce gets hit, has had enough, and decides to jump in and put an end to it. His contribution is pretty basic set of kicks, but the best is a moment where his sudden strike knocks a knife out of a thug's hand and a following kick knocks him out. This is basic stuff and it kinda reminded me of any basic fight scene you might find in Chuck Norris' Walker Texas Ranger - its more about the drama and features just a couple of basic but iconic moves from the star. 

16. “Kitchen Fight: Bruce Lee vs. Two” -Fist of Fury (1972)
- Commentary: A short and simple fight with a nice bit of choreography from Lee here to counter an attack from the first fighter. Lee finishes off the first fighter with an intense punch that literally kills the man. Decent pop here. 

15. “Opening: Bruce Lee vs. Sammo Hung at the Shaolin Temple” -Enter the Dragon (1973)
- Commentary: This opening fight from Enter the Dragon finds Bruce Lee facing off against a young and pre-international fame Sammo Hung. The fight is simple and gives Lee a chance to show off his physique and his quickness. Sammo at least gets a chance to do a few flips before he is handed his hat.

14. “Bruce Lee vs. O'Hara” -Enter the Dragon (1973)
- Commentary: A pretty quick and brutal manhandling of Bob Wall. There's a beat or two that's memorable, but overall its a quick fight that wouldn't look that out of place in a Steven Seagal movie. 

13. “Bruce Lee, Roper, & the Prisoners Take on All Han’s Men” -Enter the Dragon (1973)
- Commentary: During a fight between Roper and Bolo, the female CIA operative frees many of the prisoners in Han's cages. After Roper wins the fight, Han demands his surrounding goons take on Roper and Bruce. It becomes an all out melee when the escaped prisoners join in the fray. Action wise, it's all just pretty generic fight stuff. Bruce and Han eventually find each other in the scrum and their brief back and forth leads to the eventual final fight. I still don't get the hype behind this film.


GRADE: C+
Largely mediocre sequences that have some redeeming or standout feature. This, to me, is where the average decent action sequence ranks.

12. “Bruce Lee vs. Hapkido Master Ji Han-Jae” -Game of Death (1978)
- Commentary: Ji Han-Jae might be a legit Hapkido master, but he unfortunately doesn't really get much of a chance to show it in this fight with Bruce Lee. This fight is the second in a series of fights at the end of The Game of Death that were filmed before Lee's death without the surrounding film completed. This fight feels less like a "boss fight" and more like a basic henchmen fight with Lee essentially getting the upper hand the entire time. There's a moment where Ji Han-Jae flips Lee over and I thought we might get a nice grounded back and forth, but Lee quickly responds and the fight is essentially over afterwards. A bit disappointing.

11. “Underground Drug Lab Fight” -Enter the Dragon (1973)
- Commentary: While Mr. Han is working out his little deal with Roper, Bruce, in all black, sneaks around Han's island and into his underground drug lab. This sequence feels a lot like it comes straight from a James Bond film except with Bruce fighting instead of Bond shooting. Bruce eventually makes his way into a control room and sounds the alarm or has the alarm go off on him, it's hard to tell. Lots of henchmen make their way to Bruce as he takes them out one by one in often tight and slow motion shots. There's some decent beats here with some nice weapon work by Bruce, even a young stuntman named Jackie Chan makes an appearance! However this is a pretty decent action that's ruined by the incredibly high praise it gets. I've seen it placed on greatest kung fu fight lists and outside of the finale fight, is largely responsible for bigger than life reputation the film has.

10. “Taking Out an Alleyway of Bad Guys with Two Nunchaku” -Way of the Dragon (1972)
- Commentary: After defeating a first round of Italian thugs who want to take over a restaurant, they send even more for a second round of intimidation. As they try and take Bruce Lee out into an alley he gets the drop on them using a pole, but ends up duel wielding nunchaku against the majority of the bad guys who come out into the alleyway to defeat him. There's nothing overly stylish here and that's the appeal - this is Lee just simply striking guys one by one and taking them down with his swift nunchaku. It's simple but effective. I like the little humorous coda on the end where the main villain tries to use the nunchakus and ends up knocking himself out.

9. “Finale Fight: Bruce Lee vs. Big Boss Man in the Field” -The Big Boss (1971)
- Commentary: After finding out the Boss was in on the murders of his friend, Bruce heads to the Boss' mansion to take him out. He comes to the gate of the mansion and comically (with a kind of jump cut) just leaps right over the fence. He then faces off briefly against the boss' henchmen which he dispatches with some kicks and a knives. Finally, we get the showdown with the titular "Big Boss" and it's a mixed affair. There's some nice beats here - I particularly like the foot work moment and some of the wide face/off moments. However, there's also some silliness and clunky choreography that can't be overlooked. It's got better high spots than the ice house fight, but it's just not as consistent.


GRADE: B-
Good sequences that have some issue holding it back from being solid.

8. “Bruce Lee vs. Chieh Yuan: The Bamboo & Nunchaku Fight” -Game of Death (1978)
- Commentary: The Game of Death film finally catches up with Bruce's originally filmed fight sequences when he faces off against Chieh Yuan in the opening fight of the "Pagoda" sequences (which are now supposed to take place in the upper floors of the Red Pepper restaurant.) The fight starts with a brief back and forth where Bruce takes out Yuan's two red sticks with a skinny little green bamboo stick. It then quickly turns into duel of nunchaku - Lee's most famous weapon use. The two show off a bit and then we get some decent back and forth choreographed beats between them. A lot of it is fluff until Bruce makes a maneuver or throws in a kick - I wish there was a bit more of a substantive exchange here. Additionally, the obvious bulky padding the nunchaku bother me as it gives the fight a restrained feel. They don't look like deadly wooden weapons at all. Still, it's a nice little fight despite my quibbles.

7. “Ice House Fight” -The Big Boss (1971)
- Commentary: The best fight of Lee's first major film is a pretty routine fight sequence in the grand scheme of things. This is the first time we see Lee take on a large group of henchmen and you can see some of the beats here that would be improved on significantly in next years Fist of Fury. The sequence finds Bruce investigating the ice factory at night and finding that the boss has murdered some of the workers. Henchmen show up and Bruce takes them down inside the factory and outside the factory. It's a decent fight.

6. “Finale Fight: Lee vs. Han in a Glass Maze” -Enter the Dragon (1973)
- Commentary: The best fight in Lee's most popular movie is one of the most underrated fights in film history. It's not a bad fight, it just doesn't quite live up to its oversized reputation. The first half of the fight is a decent "old man villain" battle between the young and athletic Lee and the clunky Han who just has his wits and a sharp hand accessory. I like Lee's takedowns here, but a couple of the kicks are just kinda silly. Once Han escapes into his mirror room the sequence takes on a much more artistic feel. It's a pretty cool new vibe, but once we see any wider shot of the room we realize that the mirrors are really just kinda on the walls and not a winding maze where one could easily hide. In other words, its just a camera trick and in the real room it would be instantly obvious where they were. It kinda makes Lee look like a bit of an idiot to me. He eventually smashes the mirrors and somehow that reveals Han and Lee takes out with a kick. Not a bad finale at all, but it is wildly overpraised and dated in my humble opinion.

5. “Bruce Lee vs. Bob Wall and Friend” -Way of the Dragon (1972) Link
- Commentary: After the normal group of thugs fail to beat Bruce Lee, an Italian mobster is forced to bring in some of the best muscle from elsewhere - Enter Bob Wall and his friend. They lure Lee out with a couple of friends for a fight in an abandoned lot (the setting is pretty ugly - though it does keep with Hong Kong fight tradition). When Lee's friends fail to beat the newcomers, he steps in. Since these guys okay as sub bosses they don't go down with 1-2 strikes, but instead it takes 4-5 (lol!). Lee barely breaks a sweat here. The fighting with Wall at least feels more legit and intentional, but none of the sub bosses here are given a chance to look good against anyone except for chicken fodder. Some of the better action beats of the film (outside the main showdown) can be found here.


GRADE: B
Good action sequences with much to commend about them. They are a solid entry into their genre.

BONUS: "Diner: Bruce Lee vs. American Martial Artist" -Ip Man 4: The Finale (2019)
- Commentary: Danny Kwok-Kwan Chan plays Bruce Lee in the Ip Man franchise. Bruce Lee was a famous student of Ip Man when he was in Hong Kong, and in this film Lee welcomes Ip Man to San Francisco. While eating at a diner at night, a group of American martial arts students challenge Lee to a fight. They had out to an alleyway nearby and Lee quite easily takes out three of the students. The fight picks up when a much tougher opponent shows up and they begin a one on one contest. The setup is cheesy, but Chan does a great job here of approximating what Bruce Lee's style would have looked like in a contemporary fight film. It's a good back and forth where Lee contends with his opponents size with quick strikes. The final phase of the fight with the opponent breaking out num-chuks. Lee is quick to counter, remove the weapon, and use it against him. It all looks great and becomes a kind of fun imaginative world of what if - what if Bruce had lasted and been able to make more modern films? 

4. “Bruce Lee vs. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar” -Game of Death (1978)
- Commentary: The dramatic opening to this fight is incredible. Lee comes ups the stairway after having had defeated two levels of opponents and finds Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (in singlasses) staring at him. Jabbar, not selling any fear, just casually sits down in what looks like a kind of rocker chair. Lee approaches and Jabbar kicks him first, knocking him back several paces. Jabbar gets out of the chair and comes at Lee with punches and kicks, knocking him to the ground. Grounded, Lee trips up Jabbar who calmly sits cross-legged and then stands back up. We then see a handful of nice back and forths between the two, with Lee getting the best of Jabbar, but Jabbar comes off looking pretty intimidating. By the end, Lee knocks off Jabbar's sunglasses (I guess the guy has a problem with light) and then chokes him out for the win. It's an inconic fight no doubt and Lee in his yellow jumpsuit looks really cool against an intimidating and athletic giant like Jabbar. That said, it's hard to go above a B here due to the choppy editing, short nature, and a somewhat anti-climactic conclusion. I'm certain that if Lee had lived long enough, this sequence would have gotten more care and attention and become one of his all-time greatest fights.


GRADE: B+
Very good action sequences with something holding them back from greatness. These sequences are typically best in their film and represent something above and beyond expectations.

3. “Dojo Icon: Bruce Lee vs. Students & their Master Yoshida” -Fist of Fury (1972)
- Commentary: I just cannot deny how iconic, influential, and infectiously fun this sequence is. It has been directly copied by the greats Jet Li and Donnie Yen (twice!!) and still the original retains much of its power and enjoyment some fifty years later. The sequence features Bruce Lee's Chen Zhen arriving at a Japanese dojo and challenging anyone their to a fight. This is in response to a provocation from the Japanese earlier in the film. After Lee quickly handles two lower level henchmen, the entire group of students surround him and we get that iconic overhead shot above. The choreography is quite simple compared to other great cinematic fights, but Lee puts a lot of energy and passion into a couple sequences where he lands several kicks, tackles, and punches. Despite all this greatness, I can't get it past a B+ grade when the students are literally just running right into Lee - there's just not a lot of believability in the attack pattern here or in Lee's move set. Additionally there's a moment where Lee throws two people and it's so obvious they are dummies that its hard to take the moment seriously. I really like the second phase which features Lee use nunchaku to take out even more students including an extended beat where he attacks their feet, leaving many of them humorously on the ground and tending their wounds. Finally, the frumpy master Yoshida gets involved, tries a few Judo like takedowns, but ends up being bested by the quicker striking Lee. This is a great sequence that is an obvious standout amongst its peers at the time, a huge influence on fight cinema, but just not something that rivals the best sequences we see today.


GRADE: A-
These are great action sequences with some minor issue(s) holding them back. They are typically best in their film and potentially best of the year.

2. “Dojo Redux Finale: Lee vs. Yoshida, Petrov, & Suzuki” -Fist of Fury (1972)
- Commentary: It might not be as iconic as the dojo sequence from earlier in this film but this finale is technically better and something that I find my overall enjoyment in (clearly Quentin Tarantino did as well, because this one influences his first Kill Bill finale more than the dojo one). The finale is an excellent template setter for the multi-phase martial arts finale where the hero must go through a few different levels of fights with variety and increasing difficulty/stakes. Lee returns to the Japanese dojo to avenge his master and takes out a few students drawing our the lower level frumpy master Yoshida. This time Yoshida grabs a sword and we get a clunky little fight between them that ends with an interesting but cheesy beat where Lee kicks the sword up out of Yoshida's hands and then hits Yoshida forcing him to bend down and the sword stabs Yoshida in the back. It's the worst part of the finale and I've never understood why they put this frumpy looking guy in the film honestly. Lee moves to an outside garden where he takes out some students again, drawing out the next boss - Robert Baker playing the character Petrov. This is a really good fight that gets brought down a bit by the unwise inclusion of some cinematic silliness, which at the time probably seemed like a right decision. The best parts of the fight is when the camera moves back and we a medium wide two shot and a quick strike/counter sequence between the two fighters. These moments feel like a real fight and it's no surprise that Jackie Chan would later pay homage (of course trying to better it too) in his Wheels on Meals fight sequence with Benny Urquidez. The sequence ends with Lee taking on the main villain Suzuki (with sword...an interesting decision since Yoshida used one too) with his nunchaku. They have a nice back and forth with a couple enjoyable beats. The two major fight sequences in this film are the kind of sequences that make you begin to think Bruce Lee really could live up to the impossible to fulfill shoes popular culture has given him.


GRADE: A
Great action sequences that can compete for best of the year and best of all-time.

1. “Coliseum Fight Finale: Bruce Lee vs. Chuck Norris” -Way of the Dragon (1972) Link
- Commentary: When Bruce Lee is at his best his charisma remains a feature of his sequences, but it is surrounded by an athletic and intelligent showcase of his skill and the skills of his opponent. Bruce would often fight large groups of people - like the dojo sequence from Fist of Fury. When these sequences were filmed too closely, edited too tightly, and choreographed too simply, you get moments that feel better than they actually are on inspection - like his underground drug group fight scene in Enter the Dragon. When the camera work is done right, we get the iconic gem of a sequence found when Lee takes out an entire dojo in Fist of Fury. If you are looking for a sequence that epitomizes the best qualities of Lee in film and in reality, look no further than this masterpiece fight with Chuck Norris from Way of the Dragon. Unlike many other fights that lean too heavily on his style and charisma, this one actually delivers on the action substance as well. 
All the best features are present: Lee's iconic silhouette, showing off his lean physique , intense facial expressions (Van Damme would steal this it seems) with a focus that looks like he is quickly breaking down his opponent in his mind mixed with a zeal for winning, and most importantly a rhythm of quiet preparation and expectation followed by a quick attack or sometimes a succession of thrusts, parries, and counters. The fight with Norris stands out because it showcases Lee's intelligence, charisma, and skill while allowing Norris to stand as a competent opponent who acts, reacts, and is ultimately bested - this is pretty rare for Lee's films. The only iconic quality missing from the sequence is the use of nunchaku. I love how this fight takes its time, gives the opponents a chance to stretch and prepare, have an initial flush of action, react and adapt, and eventually overcome. This is top notch stuff that deserves to be remembered as one of the great fights of all-time.


THE END!

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