The Two Jakes Review
Forget it Jack, it’s not Chinatown. <—— (Google shows zero uses of this phrase so I’m claiming it as an original.) It takes either a lot of guts or a lot of stupidity to make a sequel, sixteen years later, to one of the best films to ever come out of Hollywood, especially when the same star and screenwriter are attached but the director is not. Flying without Roman Polanski (as well as the sorely missed Faye Dunaway and John Huston), Jack Nicholson and Robert Towne revived private detective J.J. “Jake” Gittes from 1974’s Chinatown for the 1990 film The Two Jakes. They aged him roughly the same amount of time as had passed between the films, placing the sequel in 1948, and gave the character a new case full of complications and hidden agendas. It’s obvious that the earlier movie was on the mind of everyone involved, but making a follow-up in this situation was doomed from the beginning. The Two Jakes is really not a particularly bad movie. Maybe not a very good one either, but definitely not bad. It’s completely unnecessary and one of the worst ideas imaginable (not hardly as ill-advised as that sequel to The Graduate that Tim Robbins has pitched to him in The Player), but at least the final product isn’t even close to embarrassing. Whatever the intentions were of Towne (originally slated to direct as well) and Nicholson (who took over directing duties to get the thing made), I doubt the final product met their expectations. A significant reason to let well enough alone when dealing with films of Chinatown’s stature, especially after over a decade and a half has elapsed and the original has aged as well as anything in the interim, would be because the principals are placed in a total no-win situation. That bolt of lightning caught the first time is unlikely to turn up again and the scrutiny will be enormously overwhelming, drawing nothing but comparisons to the earlier effort.
There’s also the problem of putting together a script that’s at a similarly high level (which would be nearly impossible in this case, and didn’t happen). Gittes in The Two Jakes is just not the same character he was in Chinatown. The events of the first film and a stint in World War II could be part of why he’s different, but he’s also less interesting and, like this film, a shell of the original. That exciting unpredictability is gone. The 1948 J.J. Gittes, like the 1948 Los Angeles, has changed and, in the film, for the worse. Nicholson’s performance here is a far cry from 16 years earlier, when he was arguably the most lauded and accomplished actor of the time. Coming off Batman and sliding backwards since branding himself a persona, Jack was a remarkably changed, less energetic performer than he was in the 1970s. He’s more of a distraction than the strong lead the movie needs, unable to compete with his earlier self and maybe struggling to direct as well as carry the picture. This is especially evident when seeing the two films in close proximity. I'm not sure if it's just Nicholson that didn't age as gracefully and triumphantly as I'd have liked, or if it's Gittes as well. Spousal snooping into your fifties somehow seems even less dignified than doing it as a younger man, country club membership or not. It’s not just Nicholson though, and he’s still one of the film’s relatively strong points. The remaining cavalcade of actors, everyone from Meg Tilly and Madeleine Stowe to Harvey Keitel and Richard Farnsworth, are underused or underdeveloped or both. The sidestep about Farnsworth’s oil man is an integral part of the movie, but it’s thrown in haphazardly and not explored sufficiently. The same could be said about the entirety of the oil angle, which is seemingly intended to complement Chinatown’s water storyline (with a third chapter about air pollution planned and probably never to be filmed), but not given the attention it deserves. Instead, the main plot is dominated by Gittes’ client Jake Berman (Keitel), his crime, and the identity of Berman’s wife (played by Tilly), which isn’t terribly difficult to guess and far less revelatory than the sordid secret learned in Chinatown.
It’s not fun to pick apart every little detail that threatens to make The Two Jakes run off the tracks, but there are so many that I can’t help but whine a little. For example, why is Det. Loach’s son here? Played as a cartoon by David Keith, he’s a police detective as well and a completely one-dimensional caricature. Sure the elder Loach had a significant role in the ending of the first film and the actor who played him was apparently unavailable to return, but having his one-note son as Gittes’ antagonist is just too easy and below the standards expected. Similarly, the Tom Waits cameo is a distraction more than an asset, as is the stray scene with Gittes' fiancee. I also strongly dislike Nicholson’s sedated voiceover. First-person narration is a staple of film noir, the movement lovingly honoured in Chinatown but not really adhered to this time, yet it wasn’t in the first film and feels awkward here. If the earlier movie is hard-boiled, this one is decidedly over easy. Still, I do have to give credit where it’s due and applaud the idea of bringing back Perry Lopez (as Lt. Escobar), Joe Mantell (as Gittes’ associate Walsh), and James Hong (as the former Mulwray butler) in their original roles. Unfortunately, Stowe and Tilly combined fail to provide half of what Dunaway did and the film aches for a stronger female lead. By now, though, criticising The Two Jakes feels like shooting swollen, blind fish in a half-filled barrel. “It’s not as good as Chinatown, we get it!” I do think it’s still worth watching once or twice, at least. The film isn’t ever going to approach its predecessor’s perfection, but the atmosphere of the original is largely retained and time hasn’t hurt the second film at all. While I greatly miss the sharp suits and snappy hats that Gittes sports in Chinatown, much of the style is carried over in The Two Jakes. The attention to detail, again, may not be hardly as strong, but when comparing this to most any other crime drama from the late 1980s/early 1990s The Two Jakes hasn’t dated hardly at all. If someone had just had the good sense to replicate Jerry Goldsmith’s original Chinatown score instead of the less effective music used here, the mood would be nearly identical. There’s also some great dialogue in the movie. Gittes’ comment that he’s “the leper with the most fingers” is possibly one of my favourite lines of the decade. When plot details aren’t being forcefed to the audience, the screenplay comes through in a big way. Unfortunately, this is rare and the film much prefers to focus on that mildly interesting plot than the characters. The problem with the story isn’t so much how it’s constructed as how it’s executed and maybe Polanski's contribution is missed more than we realise. In Chinatown, pieces unravel one by one, building like a fragile house of cards until gunshots blow everything into the wind. By contrast, too much time is spent on unnecessary and unsatisfying fragments here and the ultimate resolution lands with a bit of a thud. Swollen fish, though. The Two Jakes can't stand on its own because of the unbearable weight from Chinatown that hangs over the sequel like a sack of bricks, but it's a pretty good film about an aging detective forced to confront the past that he'll never get over. I wouldn't discourage someone from watching The Two Jakes by any means, just keep expectations at a minimum.
More horrible cover art (with the added insult that the original one-sheet was great) is met by a single supplement. "Jack on Jakes" runs a little over 18 minutes and features Nicholson discussing several aspects of the process, including casting, directing, the lukewarm response upon release, and why he visited Billy Wilder. The interview is interesting enough to make me wish he'd been given a full commentary, possibly joined by Robert Towne (who is absent on this disc despite appearing on the Chinatown supplements). I'm not sure how much a commentary really would have added to the concurrent Chinatown release, but some more in-depth discussion on the choices and reasoning of The Two Jakes could have been enlightening here. The Nicholson-narrated theatrical trailer (3:09) is also included, though it's framed close to 2.35:1 when the movie is actually 1.85:1. It also exhibits a more natural colour scheme than the heavily citrus-infused shades on display in the main feature of this DVD.
6 out of 10
8 out of 10
7 out of 10
4 out of 10