Bullet Train

David Leitch’s BULLET TRAIN has plenty going for it. It has a strong ensemble of actors playing colorful characters, like a quippy modernized Murder on the Orient Express, except in this one everybody’s trying to murder each other and/or escape, it’s not so much of a whodunit. It’s a fun idea, it looks good, the action scenes are really well executed, with the actors really putting in the work, as we’ve come to expect from 87North (formerly 87Eleven) productions.

But to me the movie is a disappointment. For the last year or two I knew it was the big 87North movie with the crazy-good cast headed up by Brad Pitt fighting each other on a train, and I just took it for granted it was gonna be top of the line. On the surface it is – it’s colorful, has a sense of style, and mostly avoids that everything-is-green-screen feeling of so many modern movies. It even has a good soundtrack of (until Rare Earth on the end credits) non-obvious songs, from Shuggie Otis to Pussy Riot to a really strong use of “Holding Out For a Hero.” Strong because it’s not the original Bonnie Tyler version from FOOTLOOSE, but a Japanese cover made by Miki Asakura in 1984 as the theme for a show called School Wars (now remixed with some MORTAL KOMBAT-y dance music flourishes).

But in the storytelling and wit departments it’s not as consistent. I guess I should’ve known from the jokey trailer that this was gonna be more like Leitch’s last film FAST & FURIOUS PRESENTS HOBBS & SHAW (which has many fine qualities but annoyed me for tipping the FAST & FURIOUS formula too far away from melodrama and too much into shameless mugging, riffing and comical cameos) than his best solo work, ATOMIC BLONDE. I was taken off guard when most of the reviews I saw before release were very negative – it honestly hadn’t occurred to me it might not be great!

When I saw it compared to SMOKIN’ ACES, though, I thought that might not be bad news. My impression of that one comes from one of the most insane preview screenings I ever attended, where most of the audience openly revolted and alternated between openly mocking it and having conversations unrelated to the movie, like it was playing in the background at a party. I kind of liked it though, and the fact that it set those people off so strangely made it seem more punk rock.

BULLET TRAIN is not that chaotic. Its problem is that it’s all very cute and pleased with itself without being very funny. It feels more consistent and under control than SMOKIN’ ACES, but SMOKIN’ ACES made me laugh. It starts out seeming like Ben Affleck is one of the stars, but in the middle of a speech about his plan some ROAD WARRIOR-esque dudes pull up in an El Camino blasting Motorhead, fill him full of holes, and then sort of puppeteer his body to pretend he’s telling them he forgives them. That’s amazing. That deserves some sort of award, or at least a scholarship named after it. The Ben Affleck’s Dead Body Puppeteered in Smokin’ Ace Scholarship. BULLET TRAIN will not be contributing to young peoples’ educations in that way.

But one of its main jobs was to give Brad Pitt (“Rick,” Freddy’s Nightmares) a fun character to play, and at that it succeeds. He stars as a former assassin trying to live an enlightened, non-violent life, so his handler Maria (Sandra Bullock, BIONIC SHOWDOWN: THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN AND THE BIONIC WOMAN) gives him a gig where all he has to do is get on the bullet train and steal a briefcase. Ideally. She gives him the code name “Ladybug” to counteract his belief that he has terrible luck.

What I like about Ladybug is that he’s kind of an amalgamation of some of Pitt’s most successful on screen personas. He’s quick-witted and highly competent, winning fights against various other elite assassins without traditional weapons, using skill and tenacity (and a little luck). But he’s also a bit of a buffoon, fucking up the job in various comical ways and whining like a total dork (“I don’t even know you, man!” when a guy he doesn’t recognize seeks bloody vengeance on him). And he’s also got some of that surfer/stoner/philosopher side to him, un-self-consciously using therapy buzzwords, showing unearned empathy to his enemies and trying to talk uninterested parties into peaceful solutions. And his glasses, dorky bucket hat and white shoes only emphasize his overwhelming handsomeness.

Ladybug easily steals the case out of storage even though it’s $10 million in ransom money, being transported by hitmen Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry, CHILD’S PLAY remake) and Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, SHANGHAI KNIGHTS). I guess they didn’t need to use it, because they’re also returning “The Son” (Logan Lerman, THE THREE MUSKETEERS) to his father “The White Death,” some mysterious mask-wearing gwilo who took over the Tokyo underworld Keyser Sozo-style, according to flashbacks. Lerman is pretty funny as some dipshit with long hair and face tattoos – I didn’t recognize him and assumed he was one of those inexplicably popular white rappers turned rockers making his acting debut.

The inevitable catch comes when Ladybug can’t get off the train because he runs into The Wolf (Benito Antonio Martinez Ocasio, a.k.a. Puerto Rican rapper/singer/wrestler Bad Bunny), another assassin who recognizes him as the guy he thinks ruined his life. I have no familiarity with Bad Bunny, but he’s very cool in this role, with a sort of cartel boss meets Elvis Presley look and a really well choreographed and performed fight between furious attacker and confused but not-entirely-overwhelmed victim. Unfortunately, The Wolf’s part is just that fight and a flashback explaining what he’s mad about, and the main beats of the fight were already worn out by the trailer.

There’s a bunch of complicated other shit going on on the train. In fact the movie opens with the seemingly unrelated introduction of Andrew Koji (SNAKE EYES) in a non-combatant role as “The Father,” some washed up dude whose son got pushed off a building (?) and his ex-Yakuza dad The Elder (Hiroyuki Sanada, RINGU, THE LAST SAMURAI, SPEED RACER, ARMY OF THE DEAD) blames him for letting it happen. He’s on the train looking for the kid who did it, who turns out to be The Prince (Joey King, THE GREAT AND POWERFUL OZ, THE PRINCESS), who lured him there on purpose as part of a convoluted master plan.

Also there’s a mysterious poisoner called The Hornet, and a venomous snake stolen from a zoo. Zazie Beetz (Atlanta, THE HARDER THEY FALL) and Karen Fukuhara (Katana in SUICIDE SQUAD) show up briefly, but Pitt, Henry and Taylor-Johnson’s characters are the focus, which is fine because they’re all very good. Henry gets to do some of that heavy-lidded exasperation I love from him on Atlanta, despite transforming into an uptight Englishman. And Taylor-Johnson benefits from not having to do an American accent. I know he’s in his thirties now, but it’s still kind of striking to see the nerd from KICK-ASS now convincing as a macho mustache role that would’ve gone to Robert Carlyle some years back.

I think these actors and even their characters are funny, but the banter they’re given is too forced, a milder version of one of those ‘90s Tarantino-wannabes that seemed convinced they cracked the criminals-talking-about-silly-things formula but just came across as posers. One of the running gags is that Lemon is obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine and brings it up constantly. I eventually kind of liked that it’s his deeply held philosophy that everyone fits into personality types of characters from that show, but the way they just shove it in there before we’ve gotten a feel for this guy makes him seem like a one gimmick character. Another gag is that they didn’t choose their code names (I don’t want to be Mr. Pink!) and every time they introduce themselves someone will ask “Like the fruit?” Everyone says their lines with the rhythm of actual humor, but it just doesn’t feel like a natural response. “Like the fruit?” What else would Lemon and Tangerine be like? What are you talking about?

Similarly, there’s more than one instance of Lemon and Tangerine being referred to as twins and Ladybug saying he doesn’t think they’re twins. Get it? Because they cast them with actors who are different races. Is that really good enough to keep going back to, guys? I don’t think this is your best work.

If there’s a thematic concern that works, it’s Ladybug’s fixation on luck vs. Lemon’s on fate. Yes, all kinds of unlikely bad shit befalls Ladybug, but he also has lots of incredibly good luck (case in point: he gets bit by a poisonous snake when he’s already been injected with anti-venom during a fight). There’s a really good bit in the mid-credits that puts another point in the fate column, but like the best part of the movie* it kinda feels like too little too late – evidence that they put lots of thought and detail into how it all comes together, but also standing out as the rare scenes where they reach the target of how clever and fun they’re aiming for.

The movie kind of kicks into gear toward the end when Sanada shows up and gets to use the sword hidden in his duck-handled cane (I like when it chops the top of a seat clean off), which is weird since his whole story is only tangentially connected to the main characters. But those guys get to be caught in the crossfire of the battle, which coincides with the inevitable FX-driven high speed train disaster movie type shit.

I forgot about this but while the other JOHN WICK director, Chad Stahelski, was Keanu Reeves’ stunt double, Leitch was Pitt’s. He doubled him on FIGHT CLUB, THE MEXICAN, SPY GAME, OCEAN’S ELEVEN, TROY and MR. & MRS. SMITH. For this one Pitt is doubled by Kyle Mclean (recent Statham double), though allegedly did 95% of his stunts.

The fight coordinator is Kirk A. Jenkins and second unit director/stunt coordinator is Greg Rementer – both did the same for NOBODY. Of course a production company started by stuntmen who revolutionized modern fight training and pre-viz techniques is gonna excel at action scenes, but 87North has also held surprisingly high standards for other elements of filmmaking craft. Here once again they benefit from the talents of cinematographer Jonathan Sela (BRADLEY COOPER IS THE MIDNIGHT MEAT TRAIN), editor Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir (SHANG-CHI), and production designer David Scheunemann (GUNPOWDER MILKSHAKE), all of whom also worked on JOHN WICK and/or ATOMIC BLONDE.

Maybe this is my own failure, but for most of the running time I sort of took it for granted that I understood what I needed to understand, and then after all was revealed I started thinking “Wait a minute – what?” Like, The Wolf wants to kill Ladybug for what happened at his wedding, and we do see a glimpse of what appears to be Ladybug serving wine. Eventually we learn that The Hornet poisoned the wine, and The Wolf thought he did it (in fact he just spilled The Wolf’s glass, saving his life). So he really was just at the wedding as a caterer? Or he was gonna kill him but somebody beat him to it and killed everybody? I must’ve missed something there.

The script is by Zak Olkewicz (FEAR STREET: PART TWO -1978), based on the 2010 Japanese novel MariaBeetle by Kōtarō Isaka. Judging from the Wikipedia summary it sounds like the movie is very close to the book (down to the Thomas & Friends references!) except that it sounds like The Prince (male in the book) is doing all this just to fuck with people, not as a scheme against The White Death, who if he’s in the book is not important enough to be mentioned in the summary. That also leads me to believe that the further element of Sanada’s character coming to avenge The White Death is not from the book. To me the book sounds like more of a PULP FICTION approach, a set of criminal characters with their own stories going on that overlap a little by coincidence, but aren’t some big puzzle to wrap your head around. That kind of sounds better to me. On the other hand, the part of the movie where the pieces started coming together was the part I was most invested in. So what do I know?

BULLET TRAIN isn’t terrible, and I wouldn’t discourage people from seeing it. It’s just too bad it didn’t come together stronger. It’s always a bummer when you see a trailer a million times and assume you’re gonna like the movie and then when you finally see it you feel like the trailer summed it up a little too well – previewing all the best jokes, telling you who was gonna fight who and how, etc.

I don’t know the different trains from Thomas & Friends, but I guess I’m familiar enough with the two JOHN WICK co-directors to distinguish the types they represent. I prefer the serious-absurd-thoughtful Stahelski movie approache to the smartass-flashy-hollow Leitch one. But maybe we need them both out there raising the action bar in different types of movies. I’ll keep watching.

*SPOILER FOR THE BEST PART OF THE MOVIE. Bottled water is featured in many scenes – held, sipped on, thrown at people, drugged and accidentally consumed by the wrong person. The final time one of these things happens there is suddenly a flashback to depict the entire journey of the bottle throughout the movie, following right behind it like its Carter in CARTER, including for multiple shots where it’s dropped and rolls across the floor. I wish the whole movie was as good as that goofy little scene.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, August 10th, 2022 at 3:49 pm and is filed under Action, Comedy/Laffs, 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.

20 Responses to “Bullet Train”

  1. Well I liked it a lot more. I think its premise and its action sequences are too over the top to be played that straight, while Sanada and Koji’s plot is actually pretty serious and non-bathos (a kid got pushed off a roof!), despite how on paper silly the White Death is as a character and would be prime target for people making fun of him, but they play him as someone to be scared of and a monster right to the end. It also isn’t afraid to take characters you’ll like and are invested in and give them a horrible onscreen death that was arguably very avoidable. I know people around here like to get on the MCU for it’s overuse of jokes, and believe me I love ripping on them for that too, but it shouldn’t mean others aren’t allowed to make action comedy thrillers.

    Yeah, I wondered about the wedding thing too. I guess he was just working there during his sabbatical from the pickup/drop job he’s only just returned to, or he was carrying out one of those missions before said sabbatical. I did really like Bad Bunny though in this. He came to my attention first with his WWE participation last year, where he really impressed with his in-ring performance and showmanship and he was very memorable here. If they ever get another Zorro take going again, maybe he could have a part in that.

    As I said in the GRAY MAN thread, Karen Fukuhara has real life karate and weapons training, so how is she not involved in a proper action scene in this???

  2. Inspector Hammer Boudreaux

    August 10th, 2022 at 7:49 pm

    I was on my way to see this yesterday and I got cold feet and turned around back home. For one thing, Hollywood depictions of Asia always, always suck ass. I’m glad you confirm I made the right decision.

  3. I agree with you, Vern. I even said in THE GRAY MAN comments that there was a lot of cute there and discussed the HOBBS AND SHAW vs ATOMIC BLONDE duality. I still enjoyed it overall, even with that said. I really liked how much Taylor-Johnson was in it. He’s one I wish had more or better roles.

    I think Pitt being at that wedding was supposed to be another example of his bad luck. He told the White Death that he’s not a killer, he’s a thief, so I think he was there to steal something when all the gruesome death happened in a horrible chance encounter.

    One example I enjoyed of Pitt being a buffoon was **SPOILER** how both Lemon and Tangerine twigged to The Prince being sketchy but he fell for her story hook, line, and sinker.

  4. Once again I’m with you 100 percent, Vern. Stahleski forever, Leitch never — I can’t forgive the way he crapped all over F&F with Hobbes & Shaw. Also, Deadpool 2 sucked. There’s no way I’m wasting my time with this one.

  5. Absolutely despised this. Maybe a little out of proportion – but it just lands on the absolute sweetspot of shit I hate. The way every line is delivered with the intonation of a joke without any of the lines actually being funny just grated, compounded by how the movie seemed to think something not funny the first time becomes so if you call back to it.

    Please no. Painfully 2008 ‘LOLrandom!!1!’ humour. I think it didn’t help, atmosphere-wise, that the crowd in the cinema I was in was totally dead. Don’t think it raised a single chuckle.

    Also a slightly mean, not constructive comment, but Joey King’s performance was absolutely shocking. Weakest major role I can recall seeing in years.

    I think Atomic Blonde is a classic – DL’s trajectory has been downwards but I think this is his weakest by far. He’s gone from a director I wouldn’t miss for anything to someone I’d take a lot of convincing to go see again. Like Vern – it didn’t occur to me that this would be bad. I thought it was going to be DL’s “one for me” project after a bunch of franchise movies – which aren’t bad but arent Atomic Blonde either. Ah well.

    On the positives – agree agree Vern re: Taylor-Johnson. He really does look now like someone a director like Alan Clarke would have loved working with, and like Carlyle he straddles that lead/character actor line. Handsome but interesting looking, able to find unexpected line-readings. Hope to see him in something great soon. And Bad Bunny is interesting in this too – definitely has the makings of someone who could lead an action series.

    But the bottle scene really is fantastic – also
    probably took a surprising amount of work to pull off, so props. There’s probably more good technical stuff I’m overlooking but I will never find out as I would never ever watch this again.

  6. Although John Wick has absolutely impacted American action movies for the better, I’m surprised that it hasn’t given us more classics. I like a John Wick knockoff as much as the next guy, but there’s just something about the alchemy of that series that others can’t capture, even if it’s from one of the dudes responsible for that series.

  7. Yeah, I was disappointed. I just found all the twists and double crosses exhausting after a while, even when they flash back to explain how it all played out. Not unwatchable but not one I’ll revisit.

  8. As someone who’s always accused of being too positive towards new movies, I can’t help but notice that these things always developes in the same way. And this is not in any way or form directed at you guys. It’s more of a general observation. A new movie comes along, and a surprisingly high number of people feel the strong need to tell the world that this is a turd covered in rabies slime. And as we know, trying to argue otherwise, is a Sisyphus task. Some time passes, short if it’s a hit, and suddenly the movie’s not that bad after all. And more often than not, ten years after it’s a masterpiece! HEAVENS GATE, THE THING, APOCALYPSE NOW, BLADERUNNER, WATERWORLD, anyone? Just some musings over a Gin/Tonic in my back garden.

  9. I think “more often than not” is a stretch. As is the idea that WATERWORLD is considered a masterpiece now and that APOCALYPSE NOW was panned in 1979; a more mixed response than we might assume today, but pretty positive and it did get eight Academy Award nominations.

  10. Think I’ll wait for this one to come to streaming.
    I always get confused between Leitch and Stahelski and who directed what so I was surprised to see that Stahelski has only ever directed John Wick films. Leitch has been a bit uneven but I have to admire him for at least trying new things (even if he’s very much sticking to his wheelhouse with each one).
    Also, did you know that (currently) every John Wick film has exactly the same rating on IMDB? One the hand it’s utterly meaningless, and yet… I can’t help but try to find some meaning in that.

  11. This movie was badass and freakin’ ruled. Could the action have been better? Sure, but the comedy and breeziness of the plot more than made up for that.

    Like Vern said, definitely some Smokin’ Aces vibes going on.

    Unless the rest of the commentariat, I’m a simple person to please. Second favorite movie I’ve seen in theaters this year after EEAaO

  12. As someone who read the book this was based on, the trailers…really left me concerned. I’ll see it eventually I’m sure, but not in any rush.

  13. Finally got to see this, sad to say I agree with this review. I liked the third act, and that colors me a bit better predisposed to it as a whole, but man, it still doesn’t make up for all the shit in the first two thirds of the movie.

    It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a movie as desperate to be hip and funny as this. It almost seems like they saw how unfunny the jokes and running gags were and they just doubled down on them. Run them right into the ground while the movie calls attention to them as if insisting that you’re watching the funniest, cleverest jokes ever penned; Thor fhor was never even half as insufferable.
    That the script focuses on fate and coincidence just means that calling attention to itself is built into the plot, which doesn’t help the movie’s tone, at all. I’ve heard it described as smug a lot, and yeah, it fits.

    I was hoping the action would save it, but no – it’s gruesome, fun and it’s mostly clear what’s happening to whom, but a lot of the connective tissue within the fights seems missing- mostly I assume to focus on funny (or “funny”) beats and a quick rhythm? I appreciate they’re trying a new style that’s a bit outside the 87North signature, but until some parts close to the end I just didn’t think it was memorable at all.

  14. Funny, I end up with the same top-level assessment as Vern and dreadguacamole, except I mostly enjoyed the first 90 minutes, but by the time we get to SPOILERS Sanada and Shannon and the resurrection of Tyree-Henry, I’m officially done with the reveals and reversals and resurrections and failed assassinations and other plot “twists.” Enough already. It *is* trying very hard to be cute and witty, but I still like Pitt and Taylor-Johnson and Tyree-Henry (and Channing Tatum!) enough for the first 90 minutes to be an amusing if light diversion. They are cute and witty, even if they’re trying way too damn hard. But once we get all quasi-serious about the White Death, the tone feels mixed and off, and Shannon’s casting and character and accent are so ridiculous and then fuckin Sandra Bullock ? shows up to give us the THE LOST CITY reunion we never asked for and it’s just silly. Also, Ryan Reynolds being “delightfully” impish even for a 2-second cameo is 2 seconds too many (go away, Ryan Reynolds). In conclusion, what the hell just happened (?) and also there is enough good to make this worth watching it until you lose interest.

  15. Bullet Train, I watched Smokin’ Aces. Smokin’ Aces was a friend of mine. Bullet Train, you are no Smokin’ Aces.

    Ok, that’s overly harsh. But I am one of the few (there are dozens of us!) who genuinely love Smokin’ Aces, and this has so many similarities without any of the chaos or weirdness that made SA so memorable. Vern mentioned the classic scene with (future superstar!) Chris Pine playing with Affleck’s corpse. It’s completely unnecessary, but hilarious, weird, and a little grimy and transgressive. Compare that to the literal Weekend at Bernie’s moment in Bullet Train, where they assumed the idea was funny enough that they don’t bother trying to make the execution clever, and even though its necessitated by the plot its half-assed. The action was definitely better in Bullet Train, with 87North that’s a given. But the characters quirks all felt overdone, the script/scenes needed to be edited tighter. And I enjoyed the fights earlier in the movie, but it wasn’t til the climax that I felt like the action really kicked into gear. That climax helped my overall opinion of the movie quite a bit, Sanada chopping dudes in half goes a long way. It was odd seeing modern action filmmaking techniques applied to what felt like a leftover mid-00s script from someone who watched too much Tarantino and Guy Richie movies.

  16. Surely there’s more than a few? I love Smokin’ Aces…give my DVD a spin every couple of years and enjoy it every time. Perfect example of how to mix Black Comedy with ultra violence with a solid cast of seasoned pros. And gains extra points for being one of the few movies Ryan Reynolds gets through without resorting to being a wisecrack a minute- annoying shit. (Something 70% of the cast of BULLET TRAIN feel compelled to be)

    Even spawned a DTV sequel which I believe I and 10 ppl watched but it’s not bad.

  17. “someone who watched too much Tarantino and Guy Ritchie movies.”

    And took the wrong lessons, from the looks of it.

    There is a noticeable difference between the lowlifes who spew uncharacteristically erudite and wordy monologues which are occasionally funny in a Tarantino/Ritchie joint and the assholes who quip like it’s Open Mic night at your local Stand Up in flicks like BULLET TRAIN, DEADPOOL and oh I don’t know..70% of Marvel movies?

    One entertains, the other is to be endured.

  18. I’m sure among the readership here there is a much higher % of Smokin’ Aces fans than in the general population. But in general internet discussion and critical reaction it seemed widely reviled, for a long time it felt like my love of it was my most unpopular pop culture opinion (until I saw and loved the extended cut of Sucker Punch, which people outside of this community hated even more than Smokin’ Aces).

    I also think Aces is actually worthy of deeper critical analysis. Years ago, I wrote a lengthy comment on the AV Club explaining it as a satire of post-9/11, Patriot Act era America, and I really don’t think I was reaching into it too much. It’s all about chaos and violence resulting from questionable surveillance, bad or misanalysed intel, communication failures, and a threat the American government originally empowered as a counter operative to a previous threat. And I think I also connected it to the use of Private Military Companies in Afghanistan and Iraq. I haven’t rewatched it in a long time so its a bit hazy, next time I should sit down and actually write my thoughts out in depth for the few people here who might actually read them.

    I really didn’t like the DTV sequel, but I was probably expecting too much because of my love for the first one.

  19. I definitely remember being pretty isolated in liking that one. You make a good case for rewatching it. Incidentally, I just heard on a podcast the other day that Terrence Malick also liked it.


  20. Right before I posted my previous comments I saw someone added Malick’s praise to the Smokin’ Aces wiki!

    Another similarity I just thought about: In Smokin’ Aces, when the shit REALLY hits the fan, you only get a few seconds view of the chaos (I think its just an elevator door sliding open and closed?). There’s flames, sprinklers, blood, and chainsaw. It feels odd to use this word in relation to a movie like Smokin’ Aces, but it shows a lot of restraint. Plenty of viewers would have enjoyed a few minutes of sustained mayhem, but I think the effect would have been lessened. You see it just long enough to think “Holy shit…” And it also fits the style and themes of the movie, where no single character gets a full picture of what’s going on, instead just colliding or bouncing off of each other with the limited knowledge available to them in that moment.

    In Bullet Train, we see a couple flashbacks to the White Death’s violent takeover. Similar to Smokin’ Aces, there is blood, fire, guns and edged weapons chaos. And from the bits we see, it seems like 87North went all out setting up stunts and action in the foreground, background, etc. At first, I was impressed by the restraint in only showing a little bit of a sequence they obviously put a lot of work into. But by the end of the movie, one of my biggest issues overall was the lack of action and intensity. The first 2/3 of the movie are all smalelr stop-and-start fights in between lots of plot and dialogue, and I didn’t feel like it ever really kicked into gear until the climax (basically the second Sanada pulled his sword out of his cane, from there until the end improved the movie by a full letter grade for me). And there’s no real reason NOT to show more of that sequence, it could have given the movie some energy and bombast before the last act.

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