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This is the first entry in a new and irregular series of posts about film marathons I’ve undertaken that follow a certain theme (directors, actors, franchises and so on). For the inaugural effort I decided to pick The Fast and the Furious series, as up until a fortnight ago I’d never actually watched any of these movies before, unless you count the 1955 B movie The Fast and the Furious written by Roger Corman (which obviously you shouldn’t). I wanted to find out what I’d been missing, so set off on a journey with perma-serious Dominic Toretto and his fellow high-speed drivers, his seemingly endless supply of expensive, fast cars and his rather annoying habit of extolling the virtues of la familia every ten or fifteen minutes…

Who would have thought that a garish, poorly-written Point Break rip-off set amid Los Angeles’ illegal street racing scene – a screenplay inspired by a Vibe magazine article about New York-based racers of imported Japanese cars – would become one of the world’s most financially reliable movie franchises, with not only eight blockbuster films made to date (and at least three more in development at the time of writing) but also associated theme park rides, tie-in books, video games and mountains of promotional vehicular tat?

Had I watched The Fast And The Furious upon its release in 2001 and asked myself that very question, I doubt I’d have predicted that a ninth film would be in production by 2018, let alone a spin-off featuring characters who didn’t even join the series until 2011 and 2015 respectively (next year’s Hobbs & Shaw will concentrate on the semi-comic interplay that has developed between characters played by Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham). In 2001 I would have probably underestimated the sheer amount of desire that exists among cinemagoers for ultimately vapid films that are filled with fast cars, bodies that conform to a certain widely-held notion of sexiness, simple dialogue and risible plotting, but I should point out here for the uninitiated that the longevity of this series is mostly due to the decision made around the time of the fourth film to bring back certain characters and to gradually phase out the street racing in favour of globetrotting espionage, slicker action and crazy stunts, the kind of multiplex-friendly material that has reliably drawn big crowds for decades. Over the course of a decade and a half, these films have deliberately been moulded in order to appeal to a wider audience, one whose primary interest doesn’t really lie with pricey supercars, though there are still enough lingering shots of brightly-painted, curvy bodywork in each entry to slake the thirst of any hardened petrolhead.

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Vin Diesel and Paul Walker

It’s a series that is partly defined by its moments of transition; what’s interesting to me about The Fast And The Furious isn’t so much the movies themselves – some of which are very, very entertaining – but what has happened in-between releases, i.e. the decisions that have been made prior to and during production. All of them adhere to a certain formula associated with three-act Hollywood action cinema, but a severe re-working and then a gradual honing of the product – and we are very much talking about ‘product’, here – has taken place between films four and eight, with one director in particular (Justin Lin) making his mark on the series as it moved from boy racer wet dream to a more muscular action extravaganza.

Lin made the third film, and is also responsible for the fourth, fifth and sixth; soon, he will return to the fold to make the ninth and tenth iterations. Screenwriter Chris Morgan has probably been just as important, writing seven of the films to date (if you include Hobbs & Shaw). Today, as a result of this consistency, and a desire not to stray too far from the successful model Lin and Morgan established ten years ago, everyone who follows the franchise knows what will be in the next film, much in the same way that those who watch James Bond or Mission: Impossible films know that certain boxes in those movies will be ticked for as long as they are made.

While you’re watching the Fast and the Furious films, it’s impossible to escape the sense that the studio tightly controls the life of this cash cow, and that we’re not necessarily seeing one director’s vision, but that of several directors past and present combined, who have all had to manage the input of power-wielding stars, producers and, no doubt, entire marketing departments. Of course filmmaking is a necessarily collaborative process, but it’s obvious that during the past seventeen years or so owner Universal Pictures has managed to slowly shed everything that doesn’t quite work, or isn’t popular enough, and has kept in everything that tests well with audiences and puts bums on seats. It’s not rocket science, I guess, but woe betide the director who comes in and tries to Last Jedi the fuck out of a future installment – because people expect certain things from this franchise, and thanks to the studio, the public gets what the public wants. (As I watched one film after another during this marathon I started to experience the same feeling I get when I go into a McDonald’s or buy a Coke; familiarity can be comforting at times but it can, eventually, also become boring.)

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Michelle Rodriguez

The notion of a series that has regularly found itself in periods of transition also applies to the actors, and their characters. Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the franchise is that no-one has really managed to appear in all of the films. Vin Diesel – who plays Dom Toretto, a man who starts off as a small-time hijacker and street racer leading a crew of fellow criminals before later evolving into some sort of godlike, injury-avoiding, stunt-driving superhero – has had a good stab at it, but I don’t count the archive footage that’s used briefly in second film 2 Fast 2 Furious or the cameo at the end of the third, Tokyo Drift (which happens to be the third in terms of release date, but not the third chronologically); still, Toretto’s total of six appearances shows Diesel’s enduring box office appeal. Paul Walker, who sadly died in a car crash during the making of the seventh film, also made it into six of them; his undercover cop/former undercover cop Brian O’Conner being the only familiar face in 2 Fast 2 Furious, which is the worst of the bunch. Other mainstays include Michelle Rodriguez as driver Letty Ortiz (five films), Jordana Brewster as driver/love interest/Dom’s sister Mia Toretto (six films but pretty much sidelined with a baby for the past couple), Tyrese Gibson as loudmouth wheelman Roman Pearce (five films), Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges as mechanical wizard Tej Parker (five films), Sung Kang as enigmantic driver Han Lue (four films), Johnson as US agent Luke Hobbs (four films) and Gal Gadot as ex-Mossad operative Gisele Yashar (three films). More recently Nathalie Emmanuel, Statham and Luke Evans have had recurring roles, while Charlize Theron’s hacker villain Cipher will surely be back in the future.

Cast members come and go, but teamwork and the importance of family are always emphasised as Toretto and his crew battle some kind of megalomaniac (usually a gangster, drug kingpin or simply a classic headcase who wants to get their hands on a nuke to start World War Three). However, many of the principal characters are in a constant state of flux, usually exhibiting criminal behaviour of some sort but switching sides at a whim, co-operating with law enforcement forces one minute but being hunted by the police and other authorities the next. Throughout they remain anti-heroes, usually morally in the right, beneficiaries of the skewed movie logic that makes characters seem ‘good’ because the person they’re battling is ‘badder’.

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Dwayne Johnson, Vin Diesel, Paul Walker

Walker’s Brian spends a few of the films as an undercover agent, but the lure of the family becomes too strong and his conflict of interest eventually ends; he becomes part of the gang on the run. Toretto – perhaps the most code-driven movie character we’ve ever seen – has to turn his back on the group in one film, becoming a kind of villain of the piece. Statham’s Deckard Shaw is the seemingly indefeatable big bad in one film only to have an abrupt about-turn in the next, his skill-set being of considerable value to Toretto and co as they take on a different enemy. In an arc spreading across three films Letty Ortiz is presumed dead only to reemerge – without any memories of her past– on the side of another enemy. And so on. The films stay the same, yet change is everywhere.

I watched them in order (ie by release date), knowing that I’d probably begin to enjoy them more as the stunts became more outlandish and everything became sillier. Rob Cohen’s original (2/5) is a serviceable action drama, in which O’Conner tries to infiltrate Toretto’s crew as part of an investigation into hijacking operations, and while doing so he earns the respect of Dom and co while falling in love with Mia. It lurches from one plot or dialogue cliche to the next, but it does have its moments, particularly the Mad Max-esque truck chase near the end. However, whenever we and the characters leave the insides of the vehicles the shortcomings are painfully obvious; as I said earlier it’s a fairly tepid Kathryn Bigelow rip-off and I began to worry about how I would feel after watching so many Vin Diesel movies in a row, as here he exhibits all the charisma and acting ability of a baked potato.

If the first one is basically Point Break with cars, 2 Fast 2 Furious (1.5/5) is a thinly-disguised homage to Miami Vice, with Walker and newcomer Gibson doing passable impersonations of Crockett and Tubbs as they zoom around trying to outwit a gang of rote Floridian gangsters. It did at least instantly change my opinion on Diesel; he is sorely missed here, if for no other reason than the second movie needed another strong link to the original (alongside Walker). As acting rappers go, Ludacris is very much a step up on Ja Rule, who is in the first one, but John Singleton’s effort is very weak overall, and even a week or so after watching the movie it’s hard to recall much of the detail.

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Lucas Black and Nathalie Kelley

I’m not sure what happened in the lead-up to The Fast And The Furious: Tokyo Drift (2.5/5), but it’s the best of the first three (ie the ones that tend to concentrate on street racing). With no returning cast members (aside from Diesel’s brief cameo at the end) this detour could easily have been a disaster, but I think it has a fair bit going for it, not least the excellent race sequences that were put together by Lin and his crew (the ‘drift’ through the Shibuya Crossing that takes place here is probably the highlight of the first three movies). Again the plot is a bit by the numbers and the performances are generally uninteresting and uncharismatic (with the notable exception of Kang, making his debut here), but shifting the action away from the US injected a bit of ooomph.

If Universal has concerns about Walker and Diesel as leading men prior to Tokyo Drift, any such fears will surely have been put to bed with the advent of fourth film Fast & Furious (2.5/5) – by this point Walker in particular had really improved as an action hero. I liked this one – with the usual reservations about acting, plotting and the script – and you could argue that it’s the most important film of the series, as it represents the point that the studio moved away from the street racing and car culture side of things in favour of more robust and outlandish action, plus the most important established characters return. It’s all very macho, and often very silly, but the stunt driving is typically excellent once again, and Lin really does excel at the big set pieces. By this point I’d watched half of the franchise in the space of a day and started to get a headache from the heady mix of fast cutting and engine revving. It was time for a break, but as the fourth one drew to a close I realised I’d finally warmed to Vin Diesel – an actor of limited ability but a likeable, earnest trier – and I was looking forward to the arrival of Dwayne Johnson, who joined the franchise in Fast Five.

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Gal Gadot and Sung Kang

I carried on the following day, slightly weary of car porn and risible acting but still eager to watch what many feel is the high watermark of the series. They definitely upped the ante with the fifth entry (3.5/5), which is set in Rio, bringing back a number of old characters for a ridiculously stoopid but hugely entertaining heist movie. In terms of the big set pieces I’m less of a fan of the one involving a safe being dragged through the streets than I am of the earlier train sequence, which is terrific fun – it’s so over the top that I was chuckling away to myself by the end of it. Once again my opinion of Walker had improved by the end; by this point in time purely in terms of his physicality he was on a par with quite a few of Hollywood’s bigger names, and the rooftop dash across the favela seen here is the equal of similar, more lauded scenes featuring Daniel Craig and Matt Damon in the Bond and Bourne franchises. Johnson is a fun addition, though his Hobbs is evidently less cuddly here than in later instalments (the actor has gradually taken on more likeable roles outside of this franchise, too), but I enjoyed the ultra-macho rivalry Hobbs has with Dom, which culminates in a wall-pounding fist fight. Over the top and frequently hilarious, Fast Five is a total blast and it’s probably the film that really converted me into a fan.

The problem with watching them back-to-back – certainly from the fifth movie onwards, anyway – is that it becomes harder to distinguish one from another; what marks them out is the appearance of a name actor, such as Theron, or a particularly memorable stunt – and Fast & Furious 6 (3/5) has two of the latter, both of which are as silly as they are entertaining: a crew vs tank showdown culminates, hilariously, with Vin Diesel flying through the air like Superman, while the crew vs aeroplane set piece includes bone-crunching fights, the death of a notable character and Diesel flying through the air again, albeit this time in a car as it exits an exploding jumbo jet via the flight deck and nose cone. The rest of the London-set material here pales a little, by comparison, but is still enjoyable in and of itself. There’s terrible dialogue yet again, and there are times when you feel there isn’t enough space or time for all of the characters to actually do or say something important, but obviously these films stand or fall on their car chases, stunts and races, and number six delivers in that regard.

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The cliff-edge stunt

As does Furious 7 (3/5), which is both The Jason Statham One and Paul Walker’s swan song, the actor’s tragic death in a single vehicle accident occurring mid-production. Memorable stunts this time feature a synchronised car parachute drop, a car smashing through the glass upper floors of three separate Abu Dhabi skyscrapers and – my personal favourite – a rather tense escape by Walker’s O’Conner from a precipitous, cliff edge bus just before it falls (filmed using a stuntman and without CGI). Walker’s brothers stepped in to help complete the late actor’s scenes and the movie includes a touching tribute to the actor as its finale, very much a ‘goodbye’ from the cast and crew that could easily have been cringeworthy but is instead genuine, heartfelt.

Walker might have started out as one of the two lynchpins of the series but in the later films he was sharing screen time with a much-expanded cast, and arguably was less integral to the franchise than he was, say, two or three films earlier. I say this not to denigrate the man but instead to explain why it’s no surprise that Universal and it’s employees carried on without him (well, there’s also the small matter of a billion dollars profit per film, but I’m trying to link these paragraphs together here, cut me some slack). There’s the briefest of mentions of his character in the eighth film – he supposedly retired at the end of the seventh – and that’s it. Joining the remaining performers for The Fate Of The Furious (2.5/5, released as Fast & Furious 8 in the UK) are Charlize Theron, Helen Mirren and Scott Eastwood, while Kurt Russell – who first appeared in number seven – reprises his role as Mr Nobody, a government agent with considerable reach. Statham also returns, this time in cahoots with the Toretto crew, though the gang are actually trying to take down their old chum and de facto leader due to some rather dubious plotting. It’s all a bit soap opera, and there’s perhaps a little too much emphasis in this one on the importance of family, but it does at least culminate in a gloriously silly submarine and car chase across an ice field, and Statham, Johnson, Mirren and Russell seem to be having a lot of fun.

‘Fun’ is the operative word with regard to this series. It got much better when it stopped taking itself too seriously and ditched the street racing in favour of silly, high-octane chases featuring astonishing stunt driving. Around the same time, the cast became more stable, with characters played by Gibson and Ludacris in particular adding some comic levity through their interplay, a tone that was later enhanced by the addition of the Alpha Male bromance between Hobbs and Shaw, as well as Russell’s knowing, confidently-delivered quips. Few people, I imagine, would wish for a return to the days of the early films, in which there was more emphasis on the frowns of Letty Rodriguez, Dom Toretto and Brian O’Conner.

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Tyrese Gibson flying high

Those three characters have, however, been integral for most of the eight films to date, providing the nearest thing we have here to character arcs and through storylines. By the latter stages of this marathon I felt some sort of affinity to them, particularly as Walker’s passing cast its shadow over film seven, but then that’s hardly surprising given that I’d spent around 16 hours in their company during the past two days.

At their best, the Fast and the Furious movies offer solid popcorn entertainment, with jaw-dropping set pieces that provoke as much mirth as they do admiration for those working in the stunt industry. But let’s not get carried away… the acting and scripts are often risible and there’s the danger of a formula eventually stifling creativity, which some may argue has already happened. How much you enjoy them probably depends on how attracted you are to big (and stoopid) blockbusters, or to the extent that you are able to embrace the stupidity of the series. What have I learned by watching these films back-to-back? Not a great deal, but I guess the main thing is they’ve just about persuaded me into becoming a fan… or perhaps a member of the family – ah yes, that word again – who shows up for everything but lurks on the fringes, wondering when they can leave.

Ranked, best to worst (only including those released at the time of writing):

Fast Five
Fast & Furious 6
Furious 7
The Fate Of The Furious
Fast & Furious
Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift
The Fast and the Furious
2 Fast 2 Furious

I’ve been moaning and grumbling my way through comic book-related blockbusters for what feels like an eternity now, and yet despite several reservations remaining in place from one year to the next, I don’t actually hate any of the post-2000 Avengers, X-Men, Superman or Spider-Man-related offerings. My irritation stems more generally from the sheer volume of releases (three or four a year, on average, and that’s before the forthcoming increase in DC Comics-related movies from 2015 onwards), which means that the commonalities found from one superhero film to the next ensure a certain on-going, boring predictability (Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy aside). Never mind the actors, the director or the characters leaping around the screen, the film will still follow a certain formula, and that now appears to be set in stone.

While these tried-and-tested methods continue to ensure huge box office returns, it’ll come as no surprise to learn that James Gunn’s comic book adaptation Guardians Of The Galaxy isn’t the film that rips up the rule book and takes us somewhere new and exciting, but thankfully it is one of the more enjoyable of recent efforts. At its core lies a dull, overly-simplistic message about family, friendship and trust (yawn), and like most comic book-related movies all appears to be lost before the heroes in question draw on hidden reserves of strength and emerge victorious with wide, shit-eating grins, but there is still plenty here worth celebrating: the humour on offer is sharply-scripted and repeatedly hits the mark, the action is satisfyingly exciting, and a number of unusual characters – albeit thinly-drawn at times – are introduced to cinemagoers efficiently.

At the heart of Guardians Of The Galaxy is Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), aka Star-Lord, a half-human space trader built from Harrison Ford’s bumfluff, a kind of cut-price Han Jones or Indiana Solo for the modern age. After he gains possession of an orb containing a powerful, desirable object called an ‘Infinity Stone’ (no, me neither) during an opening sequence that recalls Raiders Of The Lost Ark (there are worse opening sequences to draw inspiration from), Quill finds himself targeted by a mix of bad guys and bounty hunters intent on owning the stone for their own nefarious reasons (financial gain, destruction of the universe, etc. etc.). When he finds himself locked up with a bunch of criminals, Quill manages to form an unlikely, unsteady alliance with an alien assassin named Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the muscular killer Drax The Destroyer (Dave Bautista), a cynical, genetically-engineered raccoon-come-mercenary called Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and a tree-like creature named Groot (a motion-captured Vin Diesel). If this sounds a little bit like The Ususal Suspects in space, it’s probably worth noting that the link is then forced home somewhat clumsily by an amusing police-style line-up that’s lifted wholesale from Bryan Singer’s film; still, it helps to illustrate the various personality traits of these characters. (The irreverent, magpie-like style of Guardians Of The Galaxy can also be witnessed in a later satirising of that oft-seen slow-mo shot where the main characters walk along in a line, only here writers Gunn and Nicole Perlman cleverly send up this kind of cool posturing: Gamora can be seen yawning while Rocket fiddles with his crotch, adjusting his pants.)

The personalities of the self-styled five Guardians of the title are wildly different, ensuring plenty of petty squabbling and biting putdowns; in fact the best moments of the film come when all five are together in the same room, arguing about their next move. “Metaphors go over his head” is Rocket’s withering assessment of Drax at one point, who responds “Nothing goes over my head! My reflexes are too fast … I would catch it!”; the interplay between the five is at times razor sharp, and credit must go to the two writers (or perhaps the original comic book creators Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning); despite a quota of wisecracks appearing in each and every Marvel film none can match the level of droll humour found in Guardians Of The Galaxy.

Quill – an American we see abducted as a boy from Earth in a prologue, following the death of his mother – has certain issues but is generally a warm, witty and friendly soul, whereas his love interest Gamora is cold and aloof, though she eventually begins to warm to his charms and stops rejecting his advances. Despite the differences in their respective appearances, Pratt and Saldana have convincing chemistry, even if the writers are quick to shoot down the burgeoning romance with daftness and one-liners on several occasions (a Kevin Bacon namecheck here, a shoot-down there). Rocket, meanwhile, is the main provider of the movie’s cynical edge, and Cooper relishes his chances to scene-steal with a flurry of coruscating comments. Though Drax and Groot essentially provide the team with muscle, both characters are interesting and Bautista in particular does well with his role; he adds plenty of innocent likeability to ensure that Drax’s simple outlook (driven by a tunnel vision desire for revenge) doesn’t leave the character flat and boring. It’s harder to judge Diesel’s performance, but Groot is just as likeable despite his inability to say anything other than ‘I am Groot’, and as CGI characters go he is fairly well-constructed.

There’s not a great deal to the story of Guardians Of The Galaxy, once this group has formed; they are chased from pillar to post by a multi-coloured selection of snarling bad guys, and perhaps one of the downsides to the film is that too many villains are introduced and not one of them really stands out from the pack. The main threat appears to be Ronan (Lee Pace), a genocidal maniac who in turn works for the god-like Thanos (voiced by Josh Brolin). Then there’s Ronan’s blue-skinned sidekick Nebula (Karen Gillan), who also happens to be Thanos’s adopted daughter, and Yondu (the ever-growly Michael Rooker), a bandit who is something of a warped paternal figure for Quill. None of these are forgettable, and the introduction of so many at once doesn’t exactly confuse proceedings, but it smacks of a set-up for a future film and left me feeling a little short-changed. While the gradual build-up of Marvel’s Avengers-related universe has been largely fascinating to watch, there are times during this particular film when it feels as though there is too much scene-setting for future events in a different movie (and this despite the fact it cross-references way less than other Marvel movies of late).

This feeling is accentuated by the brief appearance of Benecio Del Toro as The Collector; the character (and by association the actor) seems a little redundant here, as if the order came down from above to introduce him during this film in order to save valuable time in a future Avengers movie. I’m not familiar enough with the comic book world to know The Collector’s history, but if he is supposed to be a villain in a forthcoming film he’s really lacking in menace judging solely by his appearance in Guardians Of The Galaxy. He isn’t helped by a truly awful end-of-credits scene (I sat through three hours of credits for that?) but Del Toro is of course a fine actor and so reservations should probably be put aside for now.

The cast is pointlessly-packed out with one or two other big names in minor roles; Glenn Close plays a peace-seeking leader, although her brief appearances are less-than-convincing. The same goes for John C. Reilly, whose happy-go-lucky military policeman Rhomann Dey is something of a wasted opportunity when considering the actor’s talent. Given the sheer number of heroes and villains introduced here I wonder whether his presence is altogether necessary, but Marvel do like their writers to pack the movies with characters from the comic books, however obscure they may be.

Perhaps one compliment I can pay Guardians Of The Galaxy and James Gunn is that, at last, I feel like I have stepped off a superhero-related treadmill. The past few years has felt like a bit of a slog at times, with the hype machine for one superhero blockbuster cranking up barely weeks after the previous one has finally buggered off from cinemas, and while Guardians Of The Galaxy essentially isn’t all that different from the rest in many areas, its abundant wit is welcome and certainly distinguishes it. Instead of getting bogged down by the cross-referencing seen in recent Thor and Iron Man movies, the light, threadbare plot allows for the action to take centre stage and Gunn delivers a few enjoyable, CGI-stuffed set pieces. The trick of using a MacGuffin to place a sizeable population of innocent citizens in a perilous situation is nothing new, but I felt a little interest in this world and the predicament of its characters by the time the carnage was cranked up to 11, which makes for a welcome change. Unfortunately the giant-spaceship-falling-from-the-skies has been done too many times of late in blockbusters, but Guardians Of The Galaxy just about makes it past the finishing line spluttering.

While comparisons with the impact of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope are wide of the mark, Guardians Of The Galaxy manages to establish a credibly-incredible world, links it cleverly to our own planet through Quill and smartly uses his mix-tapes of 1970s and 1980s hits to provide an unusual context for some oft-played songs. While elsewhere it disappointingly adopts the same patterns, well-worn ideas and themes one has come to expect from comic adaptations, the flipside to this is that it slots in well with Marvel’s ever-expanding universe (always a priority, it would seem), and it has already been confirmed that we will see more of the Guardians in the future. I’m actually happy about that, although perhaps I’ve simply lost the will to rail against such inevitability any more. Anyway, in terms of this one film Gunn and his cast and crew deliver plenty of entertainment thanks to a number of funny moments and some expensively-stimulating CGI. I feel a little funny typing this, but even though Guardians Of The Galaxy is as predictable as the rest at times … I enjoyed it.

The Basics:
Directed by: James Gunn
Written by: James Gunn, Nicole Perlman
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker
Certificate: 12A
Running Time: 121 minutes
Year: 2014
Rating: 7.0

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