Hong Kong action star Jackie Chan has been such a longtime fixture for Asian audiences (and more recently, American ones) that it's easy to forget how utterly revolutionary his work is. Not only because the now-40ish Chan routinely performs film stunts that nobody else would dare to, but because he was the first Asian movie star to elevate kung-fu filmmaking beyond trite chop-socky fare. While dozens of interchangeable musclemen battle hordes of ninjas with their bare fists, and John Woo's heroes employ enough guns to arm a small nation, Chan uses simple ingenuity: clothes racks, skateboards and other random household objects are his stock in trade. But Chan's true gift is his regular-guy personality. Bruce Lee was the inarguable hero in every frame of his tragically brief career, but in Chan's best work he's a great antihero: a wisecracking victim of circumstance who, like Buster Keaton, always stumbles across a new way to get out of each predicament.
It's a shame, then, that Chan's memoir, "I Am Jackie Chan," doesn't hold the same thrill as his best movies. It's not really Chan's fault: Because his childhood was marked by rigorous training, and his adulthood by his attempts to continuously top himself on-screen, there's little room left for a real-life tale of adventure that resembles his film roles. In fact, a full half of his book (co-written with A. magazine publisher Jeff Yang) focuses on his childhood education at the China Drama Academy, where he learned the fighting skills and catlike movements that would serve him so well later. The story is a fast read, but an ultimately simple one; Chan enters into a harsh regimen of training, finds himself on the bottom of a pecking order that's ruled by older "Big Brothers" (some of whom would become co-stars in Chan's films) and gets into minor scrapes that result in abusive punishments at the hands of his master.
The long descriptions of childhood episodes do pay off, however, since they help to explain his committed and death-defying personality. Growing up into stunt work, the young man who always needed to prove himself to his elders takes on the most dangerous jobs with a bravado that was (literally) beaten into him. And because the young Chan was a starving artist, he takes pride in pointing out how he routinely does more on-screen with less money. Chan's book isn't toothless; he has a number of harsh comments for his (and Bruce Lee's) early director Lo Wei, who nearly sabotaged his career. But he does seem to have a fair amount in common with his comical, anti-macho screen image.
Despite its relative thinness, Chan's book is essential reading for fans of Hong Kong cinema, if only for its well-thought-out appendices, which offer a complete filmography and a personal list of his top 10 fights and stunts. (The "Shantytown Stakeout" in "Police Story" rightfully takes the top slot.) There's also a distressing list of every part of his body that's been broken, cut and bruised. ("While making 'Supercop,' I dislocated a cheekbone. I didn't even know you could do that." Those injuries often make it onto the credit reels of his films.) Someday a smart fan of Hong Kong cinema will compile those reels of bloopers and injuries on one video, and it will tell a story that's just as true and honest -- and more intriguing -- than anything Chan has to say in his own book.