Who Am I? [我是誰] (1998)
AKA Jackie Chan’s Who Am I?
Starring Jackie Chan, Michelle Ferre, Mirai Yamamoto, Ron Smerczak, Ed Nelson, Ron Smoorenburg, Kwan Yung, Mike Ian Lambert, Yanick Mbali, Washington Xisolo, Chip Bray
Directed by Jackie Chan & Benny Chan
Expectations: Interested to revisit it.
Who Am I? was Jackie’s last Hong Kong production before re-entering into the Hollywood machine with Rush Hour. Like the last four or five of his films, Who Am I? continues the trend towards eliminating Cantonese dialogue in favor of English; to the point that this film only has a small handful of lines that aren’t in English. It’s still very much a Hong Kong film in feel, but the shift towards a more sustained and consistent American tone is a defining element of Who Am I?. Where Mr. Nice Guy was an Americanized version of the Hong Kong filmmaking philosophy of the ’80s (action above all else), Who Am I? is more an attempt to blend Hong Kong-style action and stunts into the structure of a traditional American action film.
Jackie plays Jackie Chan (yep!), a highly trained military operative on a mission in South Africa with an elite strike team. They pull off their mission without a hitch, but somewhere along the way Jackie was left behind. We aren’t privy to the exact events just yet — unless you’re watching the US cut that reorders all the flashbacks to not be flashbacks! — we just know that a tribe of African natives has taken him in, providing everything necessary to make a speedy recovery. But Jackie’s not just physically injured, he’s also lost his memory. The tribe calls him “Who Am I” due to a language barrier, and while he’s happy living with the tribe, he’s also eager to leave and reclaim his identity.
Identity is not a new subject for Jackie to tackle; in the films he’s directed, he has used and re-used mistaken identity plots or gags, as well as obscuring one’s identity from others. In Who Am I? he ventures into full-on loss of identity, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence. Jackie spent most of the ’90s working on his English diction and actively working towards reducing/removing the Chinese cultural identity inherent in his Hong Kong films. When he started working on Who Am I?, he had achieved stardom in the US and the deal for Rush Hour was already signed and in process. His dream was reality. This makes it hard not to see some purpose in his choice to return to the creative roles of writer & director with Who Am I?, his first film in this capacity since 1991’s Armour of God 2: Operation Condor, especially when the script is about a character named Jackie Chan losing his identity (and initially, his ability to communicate) in a foreign country.
Perhaps I’m just wanting to see parallels between fact and fiction, but I feel like the central conceit of the film might reveal a bit of Jackie’s feelings on the precipice of making Rush Hour. I don’t know that Who Am I? addresses this identity struggle in any real way — other than Jackie overcoming it by doing what he does best — but it is an interesting set of circumstances to consider. Another indication that I’m on to something is the scene where Jackie’s team members bond on the plane, proudly declaring their home countries. Jackie is cut off before he can say anything; even his surrogate character is robbed of a cultural identity! It was his choice to break back into Hollywood on his own terms, but perhaps it weighed on him that he had to construct a bridge to cross the gap between his Hong Kong style and the American moviegoers’ unwillingness to embrace any culture’s films but their own.
Who Am I? is structured more like a traditional American action film, but rarely (if ever) can Hollywood hits the highs that Jackie does here. The first half of the film is notably light on action, and while this is definitely the crutch of the film, it is also one of its great strengths. The slower first half builds the scenario and the tension surrounding the characters incredibly well, beautifully loading the film with all kinds of potential for a second half full of chases and fights. And guess what? That’s exactly what the second half delivers! For almost the entire second hour, the tension is released with an increasing intensity. The story and the characters may lack depth, but the sophistication necessary to pull off a film like this cannot be judged in traditional terms. It may be a more American-style film overall, but by loading all the depth and complexity into the action (and the tension that sets up the action), it is still very much a Hong Kong film. In other words: a wonderful film to leave Hong Kong with!
In terms of specific action sequences, if I’m completely honest, the end fight on the rooftop is so astronomically great that I’m having a hard time remembering what action came before it! It’s that good! The fight begins simply, with Jackie facing off against stuntmen Kwan Yung & Ron Smoorenburg (or as I call him: Dutch Ken Lo), a couple of total badasses playing elite henchman who take turns trying to knock Jackie out. This section of the sequence is pure toe-to-toe glory, recalling Jackie’s one-on-one struggles with Benny the Jet in Wheels on Meals and Dragons Forever. It’s not quite at that level, but it’s up there in sheer intensity. The choreography work is incredibly slick, too, crafting movements that flow effortlessly and make you cringe while you revel in the badass display of talent before you. And then the fight morphs to incorporate stunts, Jackie’s trademark agility, and that unmistakable element of real danger that you rarely see outside of a Hong Kong film. Jackie literally almost falls 20-something stories to his death a couple of times during the fight!
Who Am I? starts somewhat slowly, but it reveals itself to be one of Jackie’s better films of the ’90s. It’s definitely a better movie than Mr. Nice Guy, but it’s also not nearly as much sustained fun as that film. It’s hard to imagine re-watching this one a lot because of the slow build, but man, the stunts and the fights of Who Am I? are so great (and seemingly effortless, increasing their wow factor) that I might just have to keep that second half on standby. I’m disappointed in my past self for not latching onto this one, but hey, more fun for me! Hahahaha, whatever, Who Am I? is a great film from Jackie Chan, co-directed with Benny Chan, an accomplished director in his own right.
As usual, I recommend tracking down the Hong Kong version. It’s roughly 12 minutes longer, and it represents the true vision of the directors. The US version restructures the film considerably, moving the flashbacks that reveal info throughout the film to the beginning of the movie! It also removes all the alternate angles of the rad stunts, and I don’t know about you, but I want to see those amazing stunts from every angle I can! A couple of nice scenes in Africa are missing as well, including a great stunt where Jackie scales a tree lightning quick to escape a lion, and the scene when Jackie receives the bracelet that comes in handy during the end fight. Without the context, that moment is just a small bit of choreography, but with the scene behind it, there’s an extra wallop of emotion packed into the bracelets use. Is it too much to ask that the uncut versions of these great and poorly treated films are made readily available for the fans?
Next up in this chronological journey through the films of Jackie Chan is his triumphant late ’90s return to American filmmaking: Rush Hour! That’ll be in November, after Horrific October! See ya then!
Nice review. I’ve always been a fan of this one. I think it’s his last truly great film. Everything that came after has been somewhat lacking.
The American films I’ve seen are definitely lacking the full Jackie talents, and I haven’t seen too many of the others yet. But yeah, I’ll be surprised if anything after this tops it.
I’d say his best post-2000 film was The Forbidden Kingdom, mostly because of the Jet Li fight. After that, yeah, it’s not so great.
I saw that in the theater when it came out because both Jet and Jackie were in it, but I don’t remember liking it much. I am eager to revisit it, though. I know more about the Monkey King and Journey to the West now, so I think I’ll like it better.