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THE TWO JAKES

       

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Nov. 20, 2020

 

EDITOR’S NOTE: If you haven’t ever watched ‘Chinatown’ — and why haven’t you? — it would be wise to check it out before watching this sequel, as explained in my review below, published in the Deseret News on Aug. 10, 1990. Jack Nicholson directed only three movies, and this was the last. Imperfect, to be sure, but not without its rewards, and now it's on Blu-ray for the first time, courtesy of Paramount Home Entertainment. And, of course, doesn’t hold a candle to ‘Chinatown.’ Hey, go watch ‘Chinatown’!

 

Jack Nicholson has taken a big risk with "The Two Jakes," not just because he's created a sequel to "Chinatown," one of the best-regarded films of the 1970s, and not just because he has directed it, following in the footsteps of Roman Polanski at his peak.

 

"The Two Jakes" is a risk mainly because it's so unlike any other movie playing this summer and because it is much more a specific extension of the first film's story than any other sequel in years. Also because — let's be honest here — a generation or two has grown up since "Chinatown" and never seen that film.

 

In fact, even if you have seen "Chinatown," I suggest you rent it again before seeing "The Two Jakes." The latter refers so specifically to the original that if you've forgotten about the character of Katherine Mulwray, you may find yourself lost when "The Two Jakes" reaches its apex about two-thirds in.

 

Nicholson has tried to make the complex script of "Two Jakes" more understandable by adding a voiceover narration, which is at once sharp-tongued, and annoyingly wordy and cumbersome. An homage to Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles is OK but this is sometimes more a self-conscious copy.

 

The setting is 1948 Los Angeles, 11 years after "Chinatown," and J.J. Gittes (Nicholson) is a fat cat — successful, a member of a posh country club, engaged to be married, a war hero and at peace with the past. Or is he?

 

The film opens with a blurry image that is eventually revealed, by the soundtrack, to be a couple making love. As the scene goes into focus we see the image is merely the reflection in a camera lens. Gittes is still doing marital investigations.

 

 

       

 

Jack Nicholson, left, and Harvey Keitel as 'The Two Jakes' (1990).

 

The scene that follows is similar to the opening scene in "Chinatown," with Gittes apparently revealing to a client that his wife has been unfaithful. But there is a phoniness to the client's speech. Gradually we see that it's because he's learning a line of dialogue to speak when Gittes helps him burst in on his unfaithful wife and her lover.

 

This telling scene also reveals that the client is named Jake Berman (Harvey Keitel), a coincidence since Gittes is known as Jake to his friends.

 

The shocker comes in the next scene, however, as Berman breaks in on his wife (Meg Tilly) and her lover — and Berman shoots the lover dead.

 

Where'd Berman get the gun? Why did he do it?

 

Things get all the more suspicious when Gittes discovers that Berman and the victim were business partners — and now Berman gets the entire business to himself.

 

Was it a setup? Was Berman's wife in on it?

 

Meanwhile, Gittes has a wire recording of the event, and everybody from cops to hoodlums is trying to get it from him. But on the recording Gittes hears the name Katherine Mulwray, causing the events that occurred in "Chinatown" to flood his mind as he becomes obsessed with finding her.

 

What follows is a very complex mystery that really is a direct extension of the first film rather than the usual remake-sequel that stands on its own. It is therefore ironic that the title, "The Two Jakes," while a welcome relief from the many numbered titles in theaters right now, does not indicate its original source. Moviegoers who go in blind will likely find themselves confused.

 

        

 

Nicholson's performance is flawless, making Jake more mellow but still the same man from the first film, and though his direction is full of impeccable detail and thoughtful setups, there is much less urgency here than in "Chinatown." Thankfully, however, Nicholson had no compunctions about making a linear movie that lets its story unravel naturally, without distracting car chases, music videos and unwarranted gunplay.

 

Robert Towne's script is no less convoluted than the story he wrote for the first film but this time the story, while interesting, is much less compelling. (To be fair it should be noted that Towne's screenplay reportedly underwent extensive rewrites.)

 

The rest of the cast is top-notch and it's especially nice to see Eli Wallach and Richard Farnsworth in roles with some meat to them. Would that they had more screen time.

 

Fans of "Chinatown" will also be pleasantly surprised to see a number of character actors repeating their roles from that film, including James Hong as Kahn, Perry Lopez as Capt. Escobar, Joe Mantell as Walsh and Allan Warnick as the Hall of Records clerk.

 

There is much to enjoy in "The Two Jakes" but there's also the haunting notion that "Chinatown" was one of the last movies that needed a sequel. And yet, "The Two Jakes" is like revisiting an old friend many years later. A lot has changed and not always for the best. But it's still fun getting together.

 

"The Two Jakes" is rated R for violence, profanity, sex and vulgarity.