Who Am I (1998)

Original Title: Wo shi shei
Country: Hong Kong
Director: Benny Chan / Jackie Chan
Starring: Jackie Chan, Michelle Ferre, Mirai Yamamoto, Ron Smerczak, Ed Nelson, Kane Kosugi
Music: Nathan Wang

I like Jackie Chan’s films. Sure there’s some stinkers in there, but generally over his career he has consistently entertained cinema audiences. Who Am I is not one of his great successes, but it isn’t a turkey either. It has some great sequences and the martial-arts showdown with two evil henchmen has been choreographed to within an inch of its life.

The story starts in a mine in South Africa, and two guys in diver’s suits crawl out of a pit of primordial ooze. As they are hosed off, one of them holds out a piece of a meteorite that he has extracted from the grimy depths. A small sample is taken from the meterorite and dropped into a metal canister. It is then spirited away in a jeep for analysis. In transit, the meteorite fragment becomes unstable and explodes, destroying the jeep.

So, like any good spy film, we now have a McGuffin – a fragment of meteorite – which is a source of extreme power. Naturally it is now wanted by many different parties. One of these parties happens to be the CIA, and they send a team into South Africa to find and retrieve the meteorite. Amongst the CIA extraction team, is one Special Agent Jackie Chan – in the English dub, Jackie uses his own name.

A flotilla of helicopters airlift Chan and his team into the jungle, where they set up a base, high in the canopies of the trees. When the un-named bad-guys begin to transport the remaining portions of the meteorite in a convoy of trucks, Chan and his team strike with a clean surgical precision. The mission is a success and CIA extraction team are congratulated and sent on leave. As they are transported by helicopter, the two pilots abandon the controls. They inform the crew that they have orders to ditch them – leave them to die in the crash. The first pilot parachutes out. Then as the second pilot jumps out, Jackie Chan rushes after him and grabs him by the legs. Chan, himself, is now dangling from the helicopter – two of the other extraction team members are holding his legs. Swaying back and forward, Chan tries to wrestle the parachute away from the pilot, but with no luck. The pilot slips free. As the helicopter spirals out of control towards the ground, Chan is shaken free, and falls into the dense forrest. He bounces from branch to branch, banging his head (and whole body), tumbling until he reaches the ground unconcious.

Chan wakes up in a native village. he has been patched up and will be okay. But he cannot remember how he got there . When the village chief asks Chan his name, he cannot recall and answers with the simple question ‘Who Am I?’ That natives, who do not speak English, assume that ‘Who Am I’ is his name and start to refer to him as such.

In time, after being assimulated by the tribe, Jackie is rescued by a cross country rally-driver who takes him back to civilisation (in fact it is Chan who does the rescuing – but that’s just semantics). Back in civilisation, Chan or ‘Who Am I’ as he is known, is back on the radar of the intelligence agencies, and naturally the bad guys assume he knows about their double cross and their theft of the meteorite. Of course, Chan doesn’t remember any of this, and simply wants to find out who he is, but the bad guys stir up a hornet’s nest when they push (and try to eliminate) Jackie.

Ther’s one silly sequence that I absolutely loved. The story moves to Rotterdam, and poor old Jackie is being chased through the streets by an army of henchmen who are determined to capture him. As the pursuit and running battle continues, Jackie finds himself without his shoes. In response he dons a pair of clogs from a souvenir vendor’s stall and continues his his fight with his pursuers. Now, I must admit I have never been kicked in the face by a martial artist. But if I was to be kicked, I would presume that the person attacking my personage would either be wearing some of kind of sporting shoe like a runner, or possibly (if they were a classy assailent) some leather dress shoes. In my lifetime I have never contemplated being kicked in the head with the pointy end of a wooden clog. I am sure such an attack would be devastating. But in the hands of Jackie Chan it is hilarious.

Obviously, a story that features a character with amnesia is going to be compared to The Bourne Identity – and fair enough too. But before I look at Who Am I in comparison with The Bourne Identity, I’d like to point out that this film was made four years before Matt Damon made Jason Bourne a household name. Of course though, before that there was the Richard Chamberlain mini-series and  Robert Ludlum’s book were all best sellers – so the plot point of an amnesiac was hardly dormant. In fact, the idea of an amnesiac spy tracing his past may be quite an old one in the history of modern thriller writing. Recently on The Debrief blogsite, Jeremy Duns posted a fascinating article entitled Bourne Yesterday, which tracks back from The Bourne Identity, the literary antecedants of the amnesiac spy (particularly ones who are dragged from the ocean). In his article, Jeremy names checks Ian Fleming (for the end of You Only Live Twice and the beginning of The Man With The Golden Gun), Dennis Wheatley (for Faked Passports) and Manning Coles (for Pray Silence).

But both Who Am I and The Bourne Identity (the film that is – because in book Bourne’s purpose and identity are quite different) feature agents who have lost their memory, and while in the process of discovering who they are, also uncover some shady characters who are out to protect themselves. Also in both instances, if both Bourne and Chan were left alone by the villains of the piece, then most likely their schemes and corrupt little empires would have survived. By intervening, and trying to eliminate Bourne and Chan, they have inadvertently left a trail, leading our amnesiac heroes directly to their doorstep.

There are some quite noticeable differences between the two characters as well. Bourne essentially gets amnesia when a mission goes bad, or it could be argued that he actually fails in his mission. He is shot and falls into the sea. Then on the other hand, Chan is a good soldier/agent. It is his corrupt CIA boss’ duplicity and resulting betrayal that leads to Chan falling from a helicopter and and losing his memory. So Bourne gets amnesia as a result of his own actions. Chan’s amnesia is the result of a malicious double-cross.

Despite the fact that I have compared this film to The Bourne Identity, it isn’t really much of a spy film. Anyone who has seen The Tuxedo or The Accidental Spy will realise that the espionage plotting is simply a framework for Chan to drape his unique kind of mayhem over. I guess that is one of the beauties of the amnesiac plot is that it converts Chan into an ‘everyman’ or an ‘innocent bystander’. He doesn’t necessarily have to be a spy to get caught up in the situation he finds himself involved, but he is, and therefore has the skills to extricate himself from his predicament.

Jackie Chan’s films usually deliver a fair quotient of crazy stunts and highly choreographed martial arts, and that is very much true for Who Am I, but it does take a while for the action to kick in. I guess this has to do with the amnesiac character that Chan plays. As the story plays out, initially, after the amnesia, Chan is unsure of what he is capable of. Only as the story progresses, and the stakes get higher, and the ‘threats’ to Chan’s well-being before more and more painfully obvious, does he instinctively use the skills that he possesses.

Because of the slow start, and some heavy handed plot contrivances Who Am I could be considered one of Jackie’s lesser films, but that in no way detracts from the enjoyment this film provides. Jackie Chan is a very likeable actor and as a film-maker is extremely professional. He is not going to allow the film to fail in delivering what his audiences demand.

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