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  Who Am I? An Amnesiac Action Hero in Africa
Year: 1998
Director: Benny Chan, Jackie Chan
Stars: Jackie Chan, Michelle Ferre, Mirai Yamamoto, Ron Smerczak, Ed Nelson, Ron Smoorenburg, Ken Lo, Steve Brettingham, David John Saunders, Kwan Yung, Kane Kosugi, Mike Ian Lambert, Yanick Mbali, Washington Xisolo, Jerry Priele, Patrick Mofokeng, Al Karaki
Genre: Comedy, Action, Martial Arts, Science Fiction, AdventureBuy from Amazon
Rating:  8 (from 1 vote)
Review: A mystery man (Jackie Chan) awakens in a tribal village somewhere in Africa, with no idea who he is or how he got there. Flashbacks to a traumatic helicopter crash hint at the truth. Our man was an undercover agent among a band of hi-tech mercenaries hired to steal an amazing new power source discovered in the heart of Africa. Dubbed “Who Am I?” by friendly tribesman, he learns how to survive in the jungle and sets out to uncover his identity. Along his journey, “Who Am I?” saves the life of a snake-bitten Japanese rally car racer, earning the gratitude of his zany sister Yuki (Mirai Yamamoto) and the fascination of leggy reporter Christine Stark (Michelle Ferre), whose persistence earns his suspicion. CIA agent Morgan (Ron Smerczak) also takes an interest in helping “Who Am I?” though his motives prove far from benevolent. In reality the rogue agent is working for the corrupt General Sharman (Ed Nelson, one-time star of American soap Peyton Place!), the man behind the energy source theft and who had his men eliminated to cover his tracks. Now they’re out to tie up the loose ends by killing “Who Am I?” On the run from Namibia to Sun City and then Rotterdam, “Who Am I?” has no idea who to trust, save for his own guts, know-how and kickass kung fu.

After a string of mediocre to plain awful movies throughout the late Nineties, alongside a move into the Hollywood mainstream with the bland Rush Hour (1998), Jackie Chan bounced back with Who Am I? which ranks among his most frenetically entertaining action-adventure romps. Racing across two continents, the pendulum mood swings from taut suspense to knockabout comedy, crowd-pleasing stunts (notably Jackie’s climactic slide down the Williamswerf building in Rotterdam), breakneck action and even a unique science fiction element. Besides the unstable energy source concept, check out the goo-guns, net-shooters and hi-tech grenades wielded by the mercenaries. Manga auteur Akira Toriyama regularly cites Jackie Chan as a key influence on his Dragonball series, but Who Am I? exhibits an exuberant mix-and-match imagination similar to the acclaimed anime saga.

Working as writer, stunt choreographer and co-director alongside the talented Benny Chan, with whom he reteamed on several later projects, Jackie brings a real sweep to the African segment of the movie with superb Panavision photography while action sequences (the African rally; another comedy car chase through Sun City where Yuki proves her mettle as an ace speed demon; a chase on foot through Rotterdam with Jackie incorporating what else but wooden clogs into his flying footwork, with some Chaplin-esque foot-stomping and kicks up the ass, as well as a silly bit with a cute dog) add up to some of the most eye-catching and spectacular ever staged in Hong Kong cinema. The amnesiac plot aspect was originally intended to feature in a Hong Kong western Jackie had struggled to develop for the better part of a decade, until the idea was pilfered by Sammo Hung for his Once Upon a Time in China & America (1997). Jackie was none too pleased, but soldiered on with this project while his East-meets-western idea eventually morphed into Shanghai Noon (2000). Instead of simply being a gimmick, the amnesia idea is a fresh twist on Jackie’s steadfastly self-reliant philosophy, another variation on his little man against the world persona, wherein he is stripped of everything including his identity but still has an agile mind, quick wits and fast fists.

As a story, Who Am I? combines an atypically tense (for Jackie) and suspenseful, Hitchcockian mystery conceit with an appealing, almost childlike enthusiasm for African tribal life and the environment. The original cut, which was shorn of nine minutes by international distributors, admittedly errs towards eco-sermonising at times, but its intentions were evidently sincere and not mere window dressing. If one looks beneath the all-action surface, it is possible to discern themes of family, brotherhood and the need to maintain respect for other cultures, as our hero winds up fighting to preserve the memory of his African brethren and fellow mercenaries as much as restore his own. One of the biggest problems with films like Mr. Nice Guy (1997) and Rumble in the Bronx (1995) were the cartoonish performances delivered by Chan’s Caucasian co-stars. Here however, the South African actors play their scenes admirably straight and the star sparks well off them, particularly Ron Smerczak who brings real menace to his slimy rogue agent. His brilliant, near-climactic confrontation with Jackie (“I may have amnesia, but I’m not stupid!”) is just marvellously suspenseful, with creative editing and a great pump-your-fist feel-good moment when the star rips a pistol apart with a martial arts move.

Pot-shots are regularly taken at Jackie’s leading ladies here, but Mirai Yamamoto brings an infectious enthusiasm to her wacky comedy role and Michelle Ferre, a former CNN news correspondent who so impressed Jackie in the midst of an interview he cast her in this film, is quite striking and capable. Unlike many other Jackie films made around this time, Who Am I? does not fail to end things on lively martial arts bout. Here, Jackie faces off against two sharp-suited kickboxers, one Chinese, the other Caucasian, each obsessed with beating him in record time. It is a great sequence, showcasing both his comic talent and remarkable athleticism. Out-takes over the end credits while Jackie performs the catchy, African-influenced theme song.

Click here for the trailer

Reviewer: Andrew Pragasam

 

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