- Rated R
- Buy the DVD
Reviewed by Bob Westal
In theory there was absolutely nothing wrong with making a sequel to “Chinatown.” Why not make a second movie about J.J. “Jake” Gittes, the cynical but sensitive P.I. who endured an emotional hell and almost blew the lid off an epochal water-and-land scandal in the 1974 classic? After all, no one complained about sequelitis when Raymond Chandler followed up his first Philip Marlowe novel, “The Big Sleep” with a second novel, “Farewell, My Lovely,” and five more after that.
But, “The Two Jakes” — which Jack Nicholson and screenwriter Robert Towne actually saw as the middle portion of a trilogy of films — is far too ambitious to merely give us the further adventures of Jake Gittes. Instead it is determined to reflect back on the events of the first film and top its already epic scope. If ever there was a film that tried too hard, this is it.
“The Two Jakes” takes place in 1948. By now, Jake Gittes (Nicholson) has become rich and comfortably pudgy while specializing in high-end divorce cases. The emotional and career meat grinder of “Chinatown” seems to be long behind him. But Gittes’ life takes a turn for the weird when a sting operation goes haywire when one of his clients, a housing developer named Julius “Jake” Berman (Harvey Keitel), shoots his wife’s lover while Gittes just happens to be sitting in the next room. The second Jake is arrested for murder, but he stands a decent chance of getting off scot-free if he can establish that the killing was an emotionally driven “crime of passion,” and not premeditated. On the one hand, Jake II is desperately in love with his unfaithful wife, the mysterious, delicate Kitty (Meg Tilly). On the other hand, this is the sequel to “Chinatown” and we know this shooting is only the tiniest tip of the iceberg.
Of course, hardboiled detective stories tend to be complex, and “The Two Jakes” fully delivers. Complications involve the second Jake’s housing development and, of course, theft on a massive scale involving oil man Earl Rawley (Richard Farnsworth) — clearly meant as a companion to the historically-based, waterborne skullduggery of the first film.
Farnsworth is just one of a kaleidoscopic group of supporting characters, all played by solid actors, the best of the bunch being musician/actor Rubén Blades as “Mickey Nice,” the gangster BFF of Jake Berman who is modeled on legendary L.A. crime boss Mickey Cohn. Also prominent in the cast is Madeleine Stowe as the dead man’s vengeful wife; character acting great Eli Wallach as a powerful attorney; Perry Lopez returning as LAPD stalwart Lou Escobar; the venerable James Hong (most recently seen in the most un-venerable “Balls of Fury”) also back as the high-end servant to the late Noah Cross; David Keith playing the obnoxious son of the unpleasant Det. Loach; and Frederic Forest as…some guy. I honestly can’t remember what he was doing in the film but that’s okay, because Jake Gittes actually seems to forget that he has a fiancée for most of the film.
Sadly, despite stunning production values, and a strangely touching performance by Harvey Keitel as a hardnosed businessman with a gooey heart, the tedium in “The Two Jakes” is as massive as the scale is grand. One easy place to point the finger would be the director’s chair. “Chinatown” benefited from the presence of one of the most skilled directors in film history, Roman Polanski — but due to some well-known complications back in 1978 involving a 13-year-old girl and Mr. Polanski’s penis, by 1990 he was permanently unavailable for work in the U.S. Clearly, Nicholson is no Polanski (as a director, we mean), but he does a competent job — up to a point.
Another suspect, of course, is the screenplay, and that may be closer to the point. The plot is much too complicated, but that’s an old hardboiled tradition. What’s missing, however, is the emotional through-line that allows a complex, somewhat episodic story like this to engage the viewer. Howard Hawks’ great 1946 film version of Chandler’s “The Big Sleep,” is impossible to follow, but most viewers don’t care because it’s not hard to understand what the characters want and (roughly) why they are doing what they are doing. In “The Two Jakes,” Nicholson and Towne are working so hard to give us a majestic tale of corruption, political history, thwarted love, and emotional torment to match the power of “Chinatown,” that they neglect to simply tell us a story.
Special Collector's Edition DVD Review:
The trailer aside, the sole extra on this special edition DVD is a moderately interesting interview with Jack Nicholson. In it, he explains his struggles on the film, the probably never-to-be filmed third film, “Gittes vs. Gittes,” and the fact that he remains, despite everything, quite proud of “The Two Jakes.” Sure, there’s some ego on view, but what do you expect? I should add that the DVD looks great. The work of legendary cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond shimmers.