I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Spawn

a survey of summer movies that just didn’t catch on

WARNING: Somehow I forgot that I already wrote about SPAWN eight years ago, but now you’re in for a more detailed look.

August 1, 1997

It’s weird that one of my least favorite movies in this series so far is the one that stars Michael Jai White! Thank you Ralph Bakshi for making sure it’s not in last place.

White plays Al Simmons, an amoral elite counter-terrorism black ops super badass who gets betrayed by his boss Jason Wynn (Martin Sheen, FIRESTARTER, who took the job because his grandson told him Spawn was cool). He’s set on fire, blown up and recruited by a crude CGI giant monster devil (voice of Frank Welker) to be a soldier for Hell. Returned to earth five years later as a burnt up demon called Spawn, he lives among the homeless and learns how to use his new demon powers while pining for his wife Wanda (Theresa Randle, CB4) and plotting revenge on Wynn.

I made that sound like a story, if I do say so myself. The movie’s not as interested in that. Faithfully adapted from the top-selling comic book of some parts of the ’90s, here is a visually dark, Marilyn-Manson-on-the-soundtrack slog that makes THE CROW: CITY OF ANGELS look like a masterwork of storytelling craft. And at least CITY OF ANGELS was nice to look at. Despite the participation of the great cinematographer Guillermo Navarro (DESPERADO, JACKIE BROWN, PAN’S LABYRINTH), this thing looks like shit! Rarely has there been a worse case of CGI overreach – shockingly sub-par, MORTAL KOMBAT-level monsters, fire and transformations are slapped all over it like a big-screen CD-ROM game, and even the straight-ahead action movie scene at “Military Air Base, Hong Kong” looks like a ’90s syndicated TV show where cops raid warehouses and dockyards every episode.

KNB EFX Group provide high quality makeup effects, but have a hard time dealing with the design of the character – piling so much burnt flesh and “viral necroplasm” armor onto muscleman White turns him into a shapeless lump even before they wrap a bulky homeless coat on him.

On the DVD commentary track, Spawn creator Todd McFarlane says he first drew the character in high school in 1978, and made up the backstory later. So this is literally a world based on the type of crap he liked to draw: giant membranous capes, chains, spikes, Spider-man-type masks, facepaint, muscles with designs painted on them, skulls, glowing neon green things. Unfortunately most of these things do not translate well to live action, or at least they didn’t in that early era of digital effects. There are a couple money shots of Spawn posing with his gigantic cape blowing and I had to stare at it thinking “What am I looking at here?”, TRANSFORMERS style.

I thought about putting that upside down to see if anybody could tell, but I was worried somebody’s eyes would be seriously injured.

The weirdest thing you will be looking at is John Leguizamo (JOHN WICK) as “Clown,” a short, fat, grotesque guy in a leather jacket who maybe looks like a juggalo, but not a clown (except when in disguise at a birthday party). Leguizamo is buried under makeup and a fat suit and had to crouch the whole time – I’ve always suspected it helped him get the job as Toulouse Lautrec in MOULIN ROUGE. He’s some kind of sleazy agent for Hell who makes deals with Wynn but also encourages Spawn to kill him. And they treat him as one of these cartoon characters who’s constantly making what clearly are meant to count as jokes and having different outfits (waiter, cheerleader, etc.).

He’s never funny, but often gross. He eats a slice of pizza covered in wriggling mealworms, farts glowing green smoke, shows off his shit-stained underwear, stuff like that. On the commentary track the director or producer or someone talks about liking fart jokes, and their company is called Pull Down Your Pants Pictures. So I guess at least this is an honest expression of themselves and not just trying to pander to little kids who like farts and poop.

The Clown also stretches his limbs and lower jaw out to turn into a monster, calling himself “Violator.” I think they actually built a huge animatronic of this guy, but it must not have been able to move much because they mostly use the shitty animated version.

There’s also an agent of Heaven I guess (Nicol Williamson, EXCALIBUR, in his final role) who narrates the movie and teaches Spawn that he can make spikes come out of himself and shoot chains out as grappling hooks, like a Cenobite Spider-man. His mask has glowing eyes and wraps around his burnt-up face – it’s implied that this is protective when it covers him before riding a motorcycle. His big red cape pops out very occasionally and also can turn into a hard shell around the bike. I guess if I had to choose something that was best about this character it would be this weird organic armor idea and the way they animate it opening and closing.

Remember DICK TRACY had a part where he dropped through a skylight, because that was a famous shot in BATMAN? SPAWN has it too. When Spawn bursts into a fancy rich person banquet it’s one of the better scenes because of people in tuxes abruptly being faced with a, you know, demon super hero monster type of whatever thing it’s supposed to be. Probly none of them believed in demon super hero monstery type of whatever things until that exact moment. Although honestly if they’re like me they’re thinking “what is this red computery blur thing I’m looking at?”

But then he retracts his cape and tosses Wynn into some tables and (because he hasn’t learned his powers yet) has a shoot out. The have a stuntman doing a flip off a balcony with the makeup and lightup eyes and firing two machine guns. That’s pretty cool.

There’s a whole action scene where he’s driving a motorcycle and Clown is in a truck shooting fireballs at him, and music is playing like it’s a fight in a BLADE movie, except the Clown is not his enemy, he’s just fucking around, so there’s no actual goal to this action scene, it’s just a scene for no reason. Or I guess a scene to show these powers that he has since they couldn’t think of a time when he would actually need to use them. They seem to see it more as a sample reel of what the character is supposed to be than as a story.

I feel like Spawn could have a cooler motorcycle than this.
Oh, okay, yeah – I guess that works.

Then Spawn kills the truck by turning into a sharp thing and impaling it. It spills green liquid, then explodes, and Clown does an homage to DIE HARD 2.

I guess this is a PG-13 movie, but it has such a vibe of scumminess and forced edginess that I always assumed it was R. It’s much more broad than things usually aimed at adults, though. Like, Simmons doesn’t realize his boss is sending him on evil missions even though the guy speaks in a cartoonishly villainous, gravelly voice at all times and works out of an office stocked with pet scorpions and tarantulas and with two large, framed pictures of mushroom clouds on the wall. And the city’s homeless community all camp out in one narrow alley crawling with hundreds of rats and coincidentally it has a spiral staircase that goes up to the roof of a giant gothic church that Spawn can stand on top of to pretend to be Batman.

But Wynn has surgery to implant a monitor that will release a world-destroying virus if his heart stops. So that’s pretty sophisticated. I like that.

You know, here’s a compliment. I do think there’s a type of color blind casting here that’s pretty admirable. In a way it’s impressive to have a movie where the hero is black even though there’s nothing culturally African-American about the story and race is never an issue, even to the vile characters around him who you’d think would say some racist bullshit to him to rile him up. No one would dare accuse any character played by Michael Jai White of not being down, yet he lives in the suburbs and has a white best friend Terry (D.B. Sweeney, CHI-RAQ) who, after his death, marries Wanda and becomes father of Cyan (Sydni Beaudoin, 13 GOING ON 30). Apparently Terry is black in the comics, and they cast him as white so this wouldn’t be perceived as a movie aimed specifically at black audiences. Not a good reason. Yet it ends up being progressive because yeah, the girl has a white daddy, so what? People fall in love sometimes. Even D.B. Sweeney.

Screenwriter Alan B. McElroy’s first produced movie was HALLOWEEN 4: THE RETURN OF MICHAEL MYERS; his best was RAPID FIRE. Director Mark A.Z. Dippé had only directed a Grammy-nominated, computer animated video for Herbie Hancock’s “Dis Is Da Drum” that I can’t find online. He came from Industrial Light and Magic, where he started by writing code used for the groudnbreaking animated alien in THE ABYSS, which incidentally was animated by SPAWN producer/effects supervisor Steve “Spaz” Williams. The two also worked on T2 and JURASSIC PARK, so despite what this movie would have us believe, they were involved in some of the best and most important digital effects of their time.

(We also saw Dippé’s work earlier in the Summer Flings series – he was the visual effects supervisor for THE FLINTSTONES.)

Dippé and Spaz, along with Clint Goldman, left ILM to form Pull Down Your Pants, and on the commentary they boastfully tell the story of being banned from Skywalker Ranch for stealing cognac and drunkenly snooping around George Lucas’s shit in a section they weren’t supposed to be in. It doesn’t seem like they’ve ever stopped to consider if they’re really the heroes in that story. But there must not have been hard feelings, because ILM did work on SPAWN for them.

Together they made another movie that’s painfully ’90s, including but not limited to Kyle Cooper’s SE7EN style opening and closing credits with jiggly, smeary typewriter fonts. Following in the footsteps of JUDGMENT NIGHT‘s hip hop/rock combos, the soundtrack teams up bands with DJs or dance producers: Marilyn Manson and Sneaker Pimps, Korn and the Dust Brothers, Metallica and DJ Spooky, Tom Morello and Prodigy, even Butthole Surfers and Moby!

SPAWN did have action figures, but that’s no surprise since McFarlane had founded his own toy company in 1994 that pioneered more detailed toys aimed at adult collectors. That year they were on their 7th series of figures based on the Spawn comic books, and also did lines based on reinterpretations of classic monsters and Kiss.

I’m guessing these are probly the only action figures Michael Jai White and Martin Sheen have had?

Retaining the merchandising rights was part of McFarlane’s movie deal – like George Lucas – but he didn’t do anything else with it. There was a novelization by Rob MacGregor, author of several Indiana Jones tie-ins. But no pajamas or anything. No neon green soft drinks. They cut the movie to get a PG-13, and I guess that was genuinely so that the people who would like it the most would be able to see it easier, not to sell toys.

It might’ve worked. According to Wikipedia, SPAWN “was considered a modest box-office success,” but I think it’s fair to say that it didn’t really catch on in the sense of “many human beings watched it and felt good about that decision afterwards.” Weirdly one exception is Roger Ebert, who gave it 3 1/2 out of 4 stars. He said to watch it “as an experimental art film” and praised its “vivid, bizarre, intense images–including visions of hell that are worthy of Hieronymous Bosch.” He claimed that “They create a place and a look as specific as the places evoked in such films as METROPOLIS and BLADE RUNNER. As a visual experience, SPAWN is unforgettable.”

Jesus, Rog.

McFarlane has been talking up allegedly-in-the-works sequels or remakes ever since. Seeming to recognize a need to distance it from this first one he always says it will be darker and/or stripped down, less super hero, more of a horror movie. Over the years he has compared his vision to everything from SE7EN to THE DEPARTED to THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST. White was interested in playing Spawn again, but in 2013 so was Jamie Foxx. At that time, McFarlane wanted to direct it and said he’d been devising the script in his head for ten years.

Dippé didn’t direct another feature until a 2004 Disney Channel movie called PIXEL PERFECT. “When holography is used to create a new pop star, things start to go awry!” He soon found a niche as director of low rent computer animated kid’s cartoons, such as a trilogy of GARFIELD movies culminating in GARFIELD’S PET FORCE 3D.

His only other non-kids movie is 2004’s FRANKENFISH. He also continued working as a visual effects supervisor, including on S. DARKO, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2-3 and TOOTH FAIRY 2.

McElroy has kept himself busy, not only adapting SPAWN into an animated series, but writing LEFT BEHIND: THE MOVIE and BALLISTIC: ECKS VS. SEVER. And also WRONG TURN and THE MARINE and since those have three and four DTV sequels respectively I assume he always has food on his table. He also wrote THE CONDEMNED 2.

In a way MJW got the rawest deal, because this was his shot at a big iconic character in a theatrical release, and he had to wear all that fuckin makeup, and he did action, and had to give a performance that’s part super hero and part Frankenstein’s monster, and even though he did a good job it was not necessarily good to have “(Spawn)” written after his name. After many more years of hard work he became well enough known as one of the great screen martial artists and actors that you don’t necessarily think of or mention SPAWN when you discuss him anymore. But if this movie was better it could’ve pushed him into headlining action movies in that era when Seagal, Van Damme and Snipes movies still came out in theaters. Instead he got betrayed and went away to Hell for a long time and came back and everything had changed, he had to live on the outskirts using his new DTV powers for good.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Monday, July 17th, 2017 at 11:54 am and is filed under Action, Comic strips/Super heroes, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

37 Responses to “Spawn”

  1. Another SPAWN review, another occasion to mention my love for the soundtrack album. Because seriously, I love it.

  2. Oh the dark days when comic book movies couldn’t have the actor’s face completely covered throughout the movie and barely showed (if at all) an iconic piece of the comic costume (in this instance: Spawn’s cloak).

  3. Crushinator Jones

    July 17th, 2017 at 12:27 pm

    I actually agree with Roger with one caveat: Spawn’s hell is amazing if you’ve never seen a video game. And we all know what Rog thought of video games.

  4. Another example of Roger Ebert not knowing what the fuck he’s talking about.

    Someday the world will agree with me.

  5. There’s really no defending SPAWN, but from a look at Dippé’s GARFIELD movie, it’s not even close to the worst thing he ever did. That looks absolutely nightmarish, like a cheaper sequel to FOODFIGHT!

  6. Let us all marvel at this gem from Wired Magazine when the movie was about to come out:

    Not going to lie… kinda want to see the crazy amoral movie they’re talking about because the one released can’t possibly be it. Can it?

    CJ: Are you asking if I Trip Like you do?

  7. “https://www.wired.com/1997/07/a-chat-with-the-master-of-digital-hell”

  8. Geoffrey, I do.

    I wanted to incorporate another title from the soundtrack in my post, but it’s difficult. Like a long, hard road out of hell. (It took me so long to come up with that, that I now feel torn apart and with no remorse I wanna die.)

  9. I convinced my brother and dad to see this movie based on Ebert’s positive review. I felt betrayed afterwards.

  10. Rogert Ebert is similar to the guys who make the Filmspotting podcast. They’re great when it comes to art house and dramas but can’t seem to wrap their heads around genre movies.

  11. My one Spawn story: I tricked my grandparents into buying the unrated VHS. It probably wasn’t worth it.

  12. This movie came out of nowhere. Like I saw the poster at a theater in Florida one time and was like “WTF this is real?”

    I never saw it on the big screen. Had friends who did and when I came back up north to start school again they insisted I watch it because “John Leguizamo was great as the clown and it has awesome effects” boy where they wrong.

    Leguizamo put on one of the most obnoxious showcases of overacting that I’ve ever seen up to that point and the movie was visually as ugly as a lot of those mid to late 90s Image comics. Perhaps that was an unintenionally accurate quirk though.

    I’m afraid to ever revisit it because I remember it already being bad and lots of wasted potential as it is. One of those movies that probably should’ve happened 10 years after it did.

    The soundtrack definitely was cool though. That Marilyn Manson and Sneaker Pimps track still knocks. Whoever it was that felt the need to fuse rock and electronic music for a soundtrack to a movie based on Spawn of all things deserved every check that they earned for the effort.

  13. Ebert really was a numbskull sometimes, wasn’t he?

    Also “They seem to see it more as a sample reel of what the character is supposed to be than as a story.” is a dead on accurate summary of the movie, that was the exact impression I got when I tried to watch the movie once and got bored and stopped.

    But as goofy as it all is I’d still kinda like to see them try again with modern digital effects.

  14. God speed for re-enduring this to complete the Summer Fling series.

    I suppose the only thing I can add is that even my mom was convinced by positive reviews to see it. She’d heard morning DJs talk it up. Looking back that was probably an advertorial.
    We both thought it was an ugly mess.

    Leguizamo at one point says “you’ve been violated, girly man” with a German accent in an already dated Hans and Frans reference in 1997.

  15. Sternshein, I don’t think that’s fair to Ebert. His love of SPAWN is funny to me, and he could also be prudish about horror, but the guy gave positive (and smart) reviews to LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT and even THE DEVIL’S REJECTS. And was the world’s foremost advocate for DARK CITY and KNOWING. And wrote BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS. So I think he knew a thing or two about genre movies.

  16. George Sanderson

    July 18th, 2017 at 3:10 am

    I grew up in a small town which was lucky enough to have a movie theatre. It was run by volunteers and only screened movies on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights, so we only had three days to see a movie before the print had to be returned to the city that was about three hours drive south of us.
    This meant that me and my friends went to everything from Anaconda to The Remains of the Day. Missing a movie meant that you would be completely left out of Monday morning conversation at school. It was pretty rad as even our teachers would be able to join in (they went on Saturday nights whilst us kids went on Friday nights).
    Of every film I can remember seeing at the Kaikoura Mayfair Theatre from 1986 to 1998, Spawn is the one that I consider to be the worst and became shorthand amongst us kids for something that sucked beyond belief, as in, “that root canal surgery was total Spawn”.

  17. Siskel & Ebert: Spawn (Year 1997)

    Siskel and Ebert review the 1997 Superhero film, Spawn starting Michael Jai White, John Leguizamo, and Martin Sheen. This film got a mixed review from both o...

  18. Hey, it worked! My comment was going to be that Siskel did take Ebert to task for his enthusiasm for this movie.

    For some weird reason I have a soft spot for this movie, and dig it out once in a blue moon, despite having been disappointed with it as a 12 year old and never really found it a consistently entertaining watch the other couple of times I saw it. I don’t listen to the whole soundtrack, but do have the Filter & Crystal Method track in fairly regular rotation.

    I don’t think the PG-13 version was ever released on DVD, so effectively SPAWN has been R this century

  19. I think the problem with Ebert, as far as the mainstream public was concerned, is he was such a “for the people” critic that whenever he displayed idiosyncratic off-the-radar taste (raving about SPAWN or FEAR DOT COM), everyone just assumed he got it wrong. Whereas with most other critics, it’d just be like, “Here’s where our tastes differ.”

  20. Ebert saw enough movies that if you could genuinely show him something he’d never seen before, he would almost always give you a pass on the rest. Look at his WATCHMEN review. It’s almost all about how cool Dr. Manhattan is conceptually, he barely even mentions anything else in the movie, that in itself was enough to keep him interested.

    In SPAWN, he saw something he’d never seen before in the then-cutting-edge digital effects, and found them fascinating and exciting enough to make the movie worthwhile. He even admits the plot is crap, but says it doesn’t matter. Obviously years later the CGI here does not hold up at all, but it’s worth remembering that at the time this was very possibly the first “world” he’d seen created this way, and the ability to do all kinds of eccentric things you could never do practically seems to have really excited him. I doubt he’d feel that way upon a re-watch after decades of being saturated with CGI worlds, but at the time it probably seemed like a real original.

  21. Oh come on, even in 1997 the FX were far from “cutting edge”. MEN IN BLACK came out the same year and that one had some cutting edge stuff. Or TITANIC, STARSHIP TROOPERS, LOST WORLD, THE FIFTH ELEMENT, even FLUBBER and some shots of the mouse in MOUSEHUNT! The FX work in SPAWN was already then widely ridiculed for looking worse than XENA.

  22. George I love that idea of a community based around a movie theater. I’ve been quite nostalgic for my days working at a movie theater from ’94-’97 and a big part of that is the people I worked with at the time. What a unique cross section or teens working part time and grown ups managing the house, that only existed briefly as people moved on to school or grown up jobs, although I’m sure the 98-’00 crew could say the same thing.

    I never had that at school. Movies weren’t the big thing there and I was sort of the outcast for my obsession, and it was sort of frustrating to hear the popular kids rave about a movie six months after I had already discovered it. Even in film school, people weren’t really interested in new stuff. Finally, here I am working in the current film industry and now I find all I want to do is look back.

  23. CJ — well, CGI had been around for a few years at that point, but I’d argue that up to that point it had been used to do things like create dinosaurs, re-create a sinking ship, have alien monsters move more convincingly. Revolutionary things which couldn’t have been done before, certainly, but still just special effects. I think SPAWN may be been the moment when it hit Rog that holy shit, this is a fundamentally different thing altogether — this can create worlds, can create things like Spawn’s silly cape which defy the laws of physics. Can create the wild stylized images of a comic book, and not be beholden to the real world in any way. It’s not about making better puppets and matte paintings, it’s about truly unlimited creative potential. The quality of the effects wasn’t the point — it was that they were showing him something he’d never seen (plus, I think he genuinely liked McFarlane’s designs, which probably isn’t a popular opinion, but there you have it. For the record, I think his monsters and stuff are pretty cool too).

    Not to get too deep into the psychology of a guy who tossed of a review of a minor action pic in the 90’s and probably lived to regret it, just trying to imagine what the fuck he could have seen in this thing.

  24. Still, if he thought that SPAWN was such a brillant example of sophisticated visual worldbuilding with the help of computers, I wonder if THE FIFTH ELEMENT made his head explode that year.

  25. I remember Ebert, and Siskle, fucking loving FIFTH ELEMENT (and rightfully so), they even bitched that it didn’t even get an Oscor nom for Best Costume Design (they both felt it should have been a no-contest win) at the end of the year.

  26. CJ — actually he really loved FIFTH ELEMENT, too, which kinda supports my theory. But admittedly, FIFTH ELEMENT came out a few months earlier, so I can’t really defend the idea that it was his first-ever exposure to CGI worldbuilding. But maybe SPAWN just seemed even more extreme in that regard to him, and maybe he just really liked McFarlane’s designs?

    The Fifth Element Movie Review (1997) | Roger Ebert

    "The Fifth Element,'' which opened the Cannes Film Festival on Thursday, is one of the great goofy movies--a film so preposterous I wasn't surprised to discover it was written by a teenage boy. That boy grew up to become Luc Besson, director of good smaller movies and bizarre big ones, and here he's spent $90 million to create sights so remarkable they really ought to be seen.

  27. Let’s be honest, there are plenty of lowbrow films of the era where we would be *delighted* to discover that America’s most prominent critic deemed it in anyway worthy of comparison to the work of an early Renaissance artist. He picked a bad one, but I like that he would do it.

  28. George Sanderson

    July 18th, 2017 at 7:36 pm

    Fred – it was a true community cinema. Mum’s ran the ticket booth and sold food, some of it was home made, and kids from the high school would be trained up to run the projectors. Our school was so small that there wasn’t really any room for cliques, which meant that our Monday morning bus ride to school would be an all-in discussion about things like whether the Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise were gay in Interview with a Vampire and if Jurasssic Park was better than Star Wars. It was cool because at school I was an athlete and surfer but the movies have everyone a shared experience no matter what our interests were. Sure, some kids went to make out in the back row or sneak out and go smoke and drink, but that little they’re was the main social outlet for a whole town of kids.

  29. These reviews have reminded me of how much I liked the soundtracks for Spawn and The Crow: City of Angels. I could still enjoy them now, but I’m also someone who today still likes Korn’s music. PJ Harvey sharing soundtrack space with bands like Korn? That would probably make a lot of people gag, but it sounds great to me.

    The thing I remember most from Spawn’s heyday is the large number of kids in my middle school who wore Spawn shirts.

  30. I worked at a theater the summer this came out, but our theater didn’t get it. But a bunch of employees who werent workin that day decided to take a trip to a fancy new theater with stadium seating dor a rare Thursday night 7pm sneak.

    We were very disappointed.

    Re: ebert, he was always in the bag for genre sci-fi and was always willing to praise the better parts over the lamer parts if it tickled his sci-fi love.

    And i totally want to have this community movie theater, even though i live in a major city with some of the best theaters.

  31. Oh hey this is back, oh hey looks like it might actually happen this time…

    yay…

  32. “http://www.avclub.com/article/todd-mcfarlanes-making-new-spawn-movie-258428”

  33. Yeah, funny I said I’d like to see them try again and now it looks like it’s happening.

  34. I don’t believe it until it’s running in theatres (or comes out on home video).

  35. Oh my god “Cenobite Spider-man” is the most accurate and concise description of Spawn I have ever seen. Brilliant.

  36. Hey, are you TaumpyTearrs from The AV Club?

  37. Like so many movies the consensus on SPAWN has shifted, but it’s more from “the movie doesn’t do the comics justice! Check out the HBO series!” to “hmm, maybe the whole SPAWN thing wasn’t so hot to begin with”. But I’m still rooting for him. A SPAWN movie in the style of the PURGE sequels could be fun.

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