An Open Letter to Roger Ebert


(No real spoilers, but for those who haven’t seen it you may want to wait until afterward to read this)

I loved The Raid. Yep, loved it to death. I gave it a 10/10 in my review grade, and I’ll stand by that grade, as I do all others. I know I’m not alone, but there is a contingent of folks, few though they are, who didn’t like the film. Roger Ebert didn’t care much for it, and said so, and then further defended his one star review on his website. I have no issue with anyone who didn’t like the film. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, and that’s fine. He had some good points as to why he didn’t care for it himself. What I take offense to is that his review and defense of it afterward felt like–and I could just be overly sensitive– it was hurling insults at those who did, and that’s wrong.

A martial arts film is like ice cream. There are hundreds of flavors, some appeal better than others, but each has their value. You have your flowery films, like in Yuen Woo Ping’s fight choreography in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or The House of Flying Daggers, or you can have comedy kung-fu, like Drunken Master or Rumble in the Bronx, pioneered by Jackie Chan. Then there are the bone-crunching films as done by Jet Li, Bruce Lee, Donnie Yen, Michael Jai White, Scott Adkins, Tony Jaa, Steven Seagal and yes, Iko Uwais. They range from period epics to fantasy, science fiction, and contemporary action. What they–and The Raid–aren’t is “violence porn”. No one is getting off on watching someone getting killed brutally or otherwise. Fans of martial arts films love the fight choreography and the performers involved.

If I want a Merchant/Ivory film where everyone sits around all day talking about their feelings over a cup of tea, then I’ll go watch Howards End. If I want to see what imaginative fights Panna Rittikrai, Yuen Woo Ping, Larnell Stovall or Yayan Ruhian have come up with this time then that’s what I go to see these films for, the same as those who go to musicals. What ultimately makes a musical good or not will be how good the music and dance numbers are. In much the same way, Martial arts films are decided by how good the fight choreography is. If the acting is good, that’s a bonus. It should at least be passable, and the martial artist some onscreen presence. If the story is great, once again that’s a nice bonus, but it does need to be decent. Jackie Chan’s films mostly sit on paper-thin stories that are built around whatever stunts he want to do for that film; this is fine because that’s why we go to see his films. The Raid is brutal. Yes, but so is Silat, the fighting style Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian use. It’s not nice, nor should it be portrayed as such onscreen. Anything less would dishonor the style they’ve spent a good portion of their lives studying.

One of my real issues comes from Roger Ebert’s review and then his defense of that review, especially one statement:

“There’s obviously an audience for the film, probably a large one. They are content, even eager, to sit in a theater and watch one action figure after another pound and blast one another to death. They require no dialogue, no plot, no characters, no humanity. Have you noticed how cats and dogs will look at a TV screen on which there are things jumping around? It is to that level of the brain’s reptilian complex that the film appeals.”
Where to start.

1. No dialogue.

It’s true that not much is said. What needs to be in their situation? Is the hero required to provide a dissertation on his life? Actually Roger’s assertion is only partially correct. There is a lot being said, but it’s being said with their expressions and glances. Due to their situation they don’t have the time for long drawn out conversations. In fact talking would probably alert the bad guys to where they are at, and that wouldn’t be a good thing.

2. No Plot.

Yes, there is a plot. It doesn’t have to be complex to define it as having one. Not that Roger got that right, either:

“The Raid: Redemption’ is essentially a visualized video game that spares the audience the inconvenience of playing it. There are two teams, the police SWAT team and the gangsters. The gangsters have their headquarters on the top floor of a 15-story building, where they can spy on every room and corridor with video surveillance. The SWAT team enters on the ground floor. Its assignment: Fight its way to the top, floor by floor.”

Their assignment was to go in and capture Tama. They didn’t WANT to fight floor by floor, and this is reflected by how they entered the building, which was quietly. The point is during the raid things go wrong, and Tama is notified. The police try to escape by going down, but they are cut off, and they understand that only by getting Tama can they get out alive, but that in itself would be suicidal. So there is a plot.

3. No Characters

Rama seems to be a good character, and while true, you don’t get to learn a lot about him, but you know enough, and what about Mad Dog? He was a fun character, and turns out to be most people’s favorites. He was an unrelenting villain, who enjoys the fighting to a maniacal degree. Andi, another one of Tama’s lieutenants, is also a pretty good character because he’s got his own motivations that may place him at odds with Tama’s plans. Then there is Jaka, the SWAT team leader, a brave and loyal man who is placed into a difficult situation under fire, and is determined to get his men out alive.

4. No humanity.

Once again, completely not true. What about the tenant in room 766, who protects the police at his–and his wife’s–peril? The SWAT unit is placed into a bad situation, once in which killing–or incapacitating– as quickly as possible is the only means to survive, and that is what the film is about–survival. If you note Rama leaves quite a few people alive, and in fact he actually leaves more bad guys alive than he kills, even though he leaves them really, really hurt.

Folks who love martial arts films love them for many reasons. Yes, we still appreciate films that have a human dimension, meaning and morality. If I want a martial arts film with that kind of story, I always have them to lean on. I consider myself to be an intelligent man, and I’ve reviewed dozens of martial arts films, and will review hundreds more.

I loved The Raid.

It doesn’t make me a simple-minded or morally bankrupt person because I do.

Michael S Moore

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32 Responses to “An Open Letter to Roger Ebert”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    Dead-on. Ebert’s defensive essay after the bad review was especially unnecessary and silly. It’s basically the same thing as saying opera is terrible just because it’s not the type of music you like to listen to. Totally off-base and demeaning to the incredible art form of well done martial arts and action films.

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  2. davebaxter Says:

    An even more simple answer to Ebert’s criticisms: martial arts action films (vs. all other kinds of action films) has always been and always will be comparable to dance, only with MORE plot, characters, story, and graphic violence – note that in many classic dance numbers there isn’t any less violence aka death, murder, antagonism, only less GRAPHIC violence. We go to see these films and such dance productions to watch the choreography. The story and characters have to be present to make it a truly great MA film, just like a more abstract dance with no story or characters has a harder time finding an audience, though obviously in both cases no-plot MA films and no-plot dance has their fans, and should, because the DANCE is why we watch these performances. We’re not there to see people die. We’re there to see people die spectacularly, in a way that could never mimic real life. Name one major dance performance that doesn’t deliver that same promise!

    It has nothing to do with violence, per se, save for the fact that the dance element, when blended with violence, allows for a higher degree of pure enjoyment because it removes the violence entirely from reality. Yes, video games do this, too – MA films and video games takes violence and presents it in a way that does not try to mimic the horror of a real gunfight, or knife fight, or war-like assault between two large parties of violent people. If enjoying blatantly fake and fake-er and fake-est violence is “violence porn” (what an unoriginal title, Ebert, you’re way past your prime, son, stuck in the 80’s and bitching about the pointless, vicious deaths of extras in Verhoeven films) yet enjoying movies like the HURT LOCKER is somehow noble…well, no, that logic doesn’t follow whatsoever. Neither glorifies violence, neither is plain jane reality, and the latter even has the hero more gung-ho and less reluctant than THE RAID does. Slapping a veneer of real world politics over an action movie doesn’t elevate it, and adding amazing physical dance-like choreography to an action movie doesn’t cheapen it. It’s people watching fiction about other people, seeing what they can do, seeing how they handle made-up intensely dramatic crises, and enjoying the catharsis of a well-staged, believable performance that we nevertheless know it 100% a performance, and so no anxiety accompanies this.

    And I dunno, Ebert must have some sort of gripe with MA films in general (and obviously video games). It’s not over-the-top violence on screen, because this is the same Ebert who had the audacity to give SHOOT ‘EM UP a 3.5 Star review (http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20070906/REVIEWS/709060304) and that is one of the worst, most pointlessly over-the-top violent movies ever made, and personally I don’t even think in a good way – it tries too hard and is way too self-conscious of its own attempt at being crazy and cool. And Ebert largely enjoyed it and even celebrated its violence. Seriously read that review. Now try to reconcile that with his take on RAID. Something just doesn’t add up. Or he finally just got sick of reviewing action films. Or some sort of line was finally crossed and now he’s just sick of it all. Either way, he didn’t give any sort of arguable rationale for his take on RAID, so there’s ultimately not much to say on the subject (belying the length of this comment), except he’s a crotchety old guy these days.

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    • A quote from Ebert’s review of Shoot ‘Em Up:

      “That I liked “Shoot ’em Up” is a consequence of a critical quirk I sometimes notice: I may disapprove of a movie for going too far, and yet have a sneaky regard for a movie that goes much, much farther than merely too far. This one goes so far, if you even want to get that far, you have to start half-way there, which means you have to be a connoisseur of the hard-boiled action genre and its serio-comic subdivision (or sub-basement).”

      Thanks for the link, Dave. I have no words. Wow.

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    • Dave Baxter:

      In defense of Ebert’s defense of “Shoot ‘Em Up” – the difference you’re missing is the wit and extraordinary creativity of that film. I’ve seen both “The Raid” and “Shoot ‘Em Up,” and I’m sorry, but nothing in “The Raid” matches the pure creativity of the sequence that Ebert describes in the opening paragraph of his “Shoot ‘Em Up” review.

      Does that necessarily make “Shoot ‘Em Up” a good movie? No. Nor am I slamming “The Raid” (which I certainly liked a lot more than Ebert did). But you seem to be turning your own argument around on itself by criticizing Ebert for a previous review that you simply happen to disagree with. Did you not notice that your flippant dismissal of “Shoot ‘Em Up” isn’t much different from his flippant dismissal of “The Raid”? In any case, answering one review with another is completely nonsensical. Your rationale seems to be that his defense of one movie invalidates his criticism of another – a ridiculous premise on your part. One review has absolutely nothing to do with the other, just as one film has nothing to do with the other. “Shoot ‘Em Up” and “The Raid” are virtually nothing alike, except for the fact that they’re both violent.

      In that regard, one could make the same argument for “Shoot ‘Em Up” that Mr. Morse did for “The Raid” – that the high level of choreography and skill/creativity of the action design are what make the film. In one case, it’s martial arts; in the other, it’s hard-boiled gunplay with more than a pinch of the absurd. Both films’ “make or break” elements – the violence itself – are handled with an extraordinary degree of skill.

      So there’s my defense. Criticize Ebert’s take on “The Raid” all you want, but your argument goes nowhere when you just trumpet out some old review and try to draw a parallel between the two.

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  3. I haven’t seen The Raid yet, or read Ebert’s review or his defensive essay, but this blog makes me want to see or read all 3. As a fan of MA films and as an ex-choreographer I certainly have ‘views’ on MS films that seem to be of a piece with those expressed in Michael’s blog and the replies. I had better go off and do my watching and reading so I can come back and contribute an informed opinion to this debate.

    Thanks for piquing my interest with such a well written blog Michael

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  4. One thing I also remember, Ebert said the same thing about Silent Hill film, where lots of fans love it because it was one of the best game adaptation ever, while Ebert didn’t get it at all.

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  5. PJ Italiano Says:

    Superior job on the correspondence to Ebert. Your communication was rich in narrative content, provided strong rationale and justification for your posture and reflective of your critical thinking and good common sense skills. Let me applaud you for your position. We here at Florida Community Development support you 100%. We love you Michael.

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  6. amen, brother!
    regards,
    reza from indonesia
    a silat (perisai diri) practioner

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  7. Anonymous Says:

    This film was phenomenal…

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  8. danielmalvarado Says:

    Why do you think they coined the phrase “bullet ballet” for John Woo’s films? They’re BEAUTIFUL, and they rise above the hundreds HK action flicks because of their artistry, within the violent world they inhabit. Heck, the “Ka” show from Cirque du Soleil in Vegas is a dialogue-free, multi-million dollar martial arts production, and no one complains that there isn’t enough talking.

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  9. Nicely expressed, Mr. Moore. I love The Raid as a martial-arts film goes, like I tremendously enjoy Merantau (Gareth Evans, Iko Uwais AND Yayan Ruhian’s first film). In my amateurish review of the movie, I did use the word porn for the movie, but I also want to distinguish this R-rated violent MARTIAL ARTS movie with all those Eli-Roth’s inspired gore-porn ‘horror’ flicks. Pencak Silat is used, so we will see close-hand fights using *traditional* weapons (so, naturally sharp weapons are used), focusing on attacks to lower body parts as many Pencak Silat styles’ wont. Dear Mr Ebert’s comparing viewers and cats/dog when watching the beautifully choreographed fight scenes is plain ridiculous. Okay, so the plot is truly wafer thin, but the actions just rock. I watched the film with my wife, and we enjoyed it tremendously.

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  10. intinya sih yang mau ditonjolken koreografi silatnya saja mungkin.

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  11. simon hutagalung Says:

    i really agree on your point of view mr.moore, i really love the film very much!!

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  12. I already read Ebert’s review weeks ago and Dave Alexander’s response on http://www.blogtasticvoyage.ca/2012/04/redemption-roger-ebert-and-the-raid.html. Love your review Mr.Moore and love The Raid as well! Regards from Indonesian who loves Indonesian traditional martial arts Pencak Silat! Thank you

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  13. Very well stated, Michael! It’d be pretty sweet if Roger Ebert gave a response to your letter, beyond, “Lotsa people hated my blog about “The Raid: Redemption.” But at least he acknowledged it, and linked your letter because it was so eloquently stated.

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  14. […] Open Letter to Roger EbertAn Open Letter to Roger Ebert about his review of festival-favorite martial arts flick The Raid: […]

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  15. I’ve seen The Raid, and can not find best words as my opinion. But I, 100% agreed with Daniel Thompson from Australia who wrote a review in imdb:

    I decided to wait a full day before writing a critical review on this movie to let my emotions die down – In conclusion i have nothing but praise for this movie.

    If your goal is to walk into this movie and be psychologically challenged or expect great dialogue you will be disappointed. There are some movies that you need to walk into and know little of what will unfold to get the full cinematic experience. I always check the ratings of movies on IMDb before considering watching them and after reading some of the other user reviews on ‘high octane’ intensity and non stop fight scenes i in the least expected some good action in this movie. Even with that though i thought an entire movie could not be based on fighting scenes and score above an 8 on IMDb (boy was i wrong).

    This movie is earning glowing reviews because of the action sequences filmed in the movie that place you in a cinematic experience where you actually feel like you are watching real men fight for their lives. It’s nothing poetic with backflips and flexible positions but simply man vs man often equipping anything in the room to disarm/disable and kill their opponent. It places you in the hot seat viewing the closest things to actual killings – Now this isn’t to say the movie slows down on blood spurts or zooms in when someone is getting their throat sliced – it simply shows it how it is, it’s fast, real and intense.

    In some of the other reviews you hear fans praising the knife fighting scenes. This movie was incredible with it’s knife fights and how effective and swift they are in close quarters. The finish was always swiftly at the throat but that wasn’t before 2 to 3 lightning touches to the chest/quads or arms to disable an opponent or render them shocked in pain.

    Heres the bottom line: This movie was made on the smallest budget i’ve ever seen for any movie to hit international screens. The director and all actors are no names that you have never heard however i guarantee that you will never watch another action film again because the raid is groundbreaking in it’s reality/intensity and quality of choreography.

    Every movie that scores high ratings appeals to a certain group of audiences. This is a very specific movie but is well deserving of the praise it is receiving from our users at IMDb. It is my hope to see more of this action from the director and actors cause i honestly don’t think i can ever watch a fighting movie again.

    MUST WATCH 10/10 Excellent.
    source: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1899353/reviews

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    • simon hutagalung Says:

      dear mr.joe,

      excellent summarization of the movie yes indeed just to let you know the movie is introducing pencak silat to the audience and this is Indonesian martial arts. as an indonesia i really love the scene especially the excellent fight between rama/brother and madog wow it was explosive. you have to deserve the credit for the director and the team.

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  16. Excellent review, Mr. Moore! People keep saying it lacks plot, but I think the minimalist plot works perfectly for this movie.

    Here’s a place for fans to gather: http://z13.invisionfree.com/TheRaidFansZone

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  17. I personally would like to bookmark this specific post, “An Open Letter
    to Roger Ebert | Kiai-Kick!” on my own webpage.
    Would you care in the event I personallydo?
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  18. Ronald Daniswara Says:

    Sorry for the late comment. It was a well stated, Mr. Moore. I think your review is representing the majority of The Raid viewers. Specially for action movie freaks. But nevertheless, Mr. Ebert has the right to comment as he please.

    The important thing is we all know when is the right time to satisfy our eyes, when we decide to spend money on movie ticket or Blu Ray movie because not once or twice we were disappointed by the so called Box Office Movie with glamorous actors when it turned out to be a sleeper wasting time film.

    Just keep writing mr. Moore. Cheers.

    Best regards from Jakarta

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  20. ok

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  21. An excellent rebuttal. Thank you for voicing the fans’ thoughts and feelings.

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  22. Adult Male With a Real Life Says:

    the raid was a boring predicable snooze-fest of gore and killing.

    Something happens by the time you turn 40. This kind of crap starts to look and feel like crap. I often disagreed with Ebert’s opinions, but he was right about this one. Just non-stop fighting and killing with nothing really at stake. Building full of poor people? City in decline? police corruption…? None of tha really felt important to me.

    Only thing I would say is that it would be unfair to single out the Raid as the worst movie of its kind. In point of fact, far too many movies present with this primitive, butchery. It offends, it bores. Give me tea sipping anyday over phony punchpunchkickkickelbowsnapcracklepop bulls***.

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    • I respect Ebert’s opinion and yours, even though I disagree (but who knows, I’m about to turn 40, so let’s see if my mind changes any) with them. This post was basically taking Ebert to task for assigning those who like the film as a particular kind of person, which was offensive to me. I miss Ebert and wished to hear what he thought of the Raid 2, but alas he’s not with us. At least I know he read and respected this post, though I lament that it’s the closest I’ll ever get to meeting the man.

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