Film Review: The Two Jakes (1990)

Release Date: August 10th, 1990
Directed by: Jack Nicholson
Written by: Robert Towne
Music by: Van Dyke Parks
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Harvey Keitel, Meg Tilly, Madeleine Stowe, Eli Wallach, Rubén Blades, Frederic Forrest, David Keith, James Hong, Tracey Walter, Faye Dunaway (voice)

88 Productions, Paramount Pictures, 138 Minutes

Review:

“I’m used to seein’ the intimate details of people’s lives, but lookin’ at a guy’s x-rays is as intimate as it gets. It’s the kind of thing most guys don’t even tell their wives about.” – Jake Gittes

I have never seen The Two Jakes until recently. I feel like I was psychologically deterred for decades because I remember people bashing it ever since it came out. It is this film’s existence that pointed me towards Chinatown, the film it is a sequel too. Sure, I would’ve eventually discovered Chinatown but I saw trailers for The Two Jakes on the big screen when I was just eleven years-old, so I wasn’t quite up on my knowledge of neo-noir or 1970s crime dramas. I was big on Jack Nicholson, however, as he wowed me a year earlier as the Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman.

The Two Jakes has been treated unfairly, though. Is it as stellar as Chinatown? Not really but those are massive shoes to fill. However, it is one of the best, if not… the best, neo-noir film of the 1990s. Jack Nicholson directed this sequel and while he isn’t Roman Polanski behind the camera, he still had a great eye and knew what the hell he was doing, putting this second chapter of Jake Gittes life to celluloid.

The cast in this film really makes this thing work. I loved seeing Nicholson play opposite of greats like Harvey Keitel and Eli Wallach. It was cool seeing James Hong come back too. While Faye Dunaway was obviously missing from the film, despite lending her voice to a scene, Madeleine Stowe and Meg Tilly were really good as the two top ladies in the picture. Stowe was a hot drunken maniac in the best way and Tilly was a soft yet strong women with a good presence. David Keith, a guy I have always liked, shows up a few times and gets a real moment to shine alongside Nicholson and Wallach. Rubén Blades steals the show in his scenes and after really loving that guy on Fear the Walking Dead, it was neat seeing him so young, full of vigor and not so dissimilar from his character on that AMC zombie show.

Vilmos Zsigmond handled the cinematography. He was not the cinematographer on the original Chinatown but he had a lot of experience, his most notable credit at the time being Close Encounters of the Third Kind. His management of the film’s visual allure is worth some serious props, as he and Nicholson created a very authentic and lived in 1940s Los Angeles.

I feel that this film actually does rival its predecessor in its cinematography and overall ambiance. The tone isn’t as brooding and sinister as Chinatown but that’s film’s narrative went to some places that brought out that underlying darkness. The Two Jakes isn’t a cold and bleak tale wrapped in beauty and opulence like Chinatown was, but it is a perfect visual and narrative extension of what was established in the first film without copying it. I kind of respect The Two Jakes for being its own thing and not trying to capture lightning in a bottle twice… or at least, in the same way.

Robert Towne, who wrote both of these Jake Gittes pictures and won an Academy Award for Chinatown, had plans for a trilogy. Unfortunately, this film was not the success that Paramount Pictures had hoped for. The third film was cancelled, which is a shame. It was going to bring the story of Jake Gittes to a proper close, as it was to be focused on him later in life.

If you love Chinatown and have never seen The Two Jakes, you probably should. It isn’t as bad as some people have said and its lack of success upon its release was probably more of a reflection of the time and not the overall quality of the film itself.

Film Review: Chinatown (1974)

Release Date: June 20th, 1974
Directed by: Roman Polanski
Written by: Robert Towne
Music by: Jerry Goldsmith
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Hillerman, Perry Lopez, Burt Young, John Huston, Diane Ladd, Bruce Glover, James Hong

Paramount-Penthouse, Long Road Productions, Robert Evans Company, Paramount Pictures, 131 Minutes

Review:

“What can I tell you, kid? You’re right. When you’re right, you’re right, and you’re right.” – Jake Gittes

Chinatown could very well be the best noir film that didn’t come out in the genre’s heyday of the 1940s and 1950s. It really embraces the style at its core but it is also a much harsher film than those older classics. In fact, it has a violent ending on par with Bonnie and Clyde, which is ironic, as Faye Dunaway is the female lead in both films.

This is my favorite Roman Polanski picture, although I need to rewatch several of them. But ultimately, the auteur director created a mesmerizing and well paced neo-noir that boasted stupendous acting from Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, as well as creating an environment that felt authentic and lived in but also alien. But as noir pictures go, you really never know who anyone is and what their real motivations are. Chinatown is a well crafted tapestry of amazement and discomfort for the viewer, especially for a fan of film-noir or general crime thrillers.

The film takes place in 1930s Los Angeles, a decade before noir was born, but it feels truly at home in the style. Jack Nicholson plays private eye Jake Gittes, who traverses through the film as a rugged hero who is quick witted and always ready to deliver a killer one-liner. He is initially pulled into the story by a woman posing as someone she’s not. He takes the case but soon learns that all is not as it seems. In comes Faye Dunaway, the real woman who Gittes thought he was working for. There’s murder, political conspiracy and some dark secrets that come out, effecting the lives of all the key players. Although, Dunaway’s Evelyn Mulwray is not your typical femme fatale.

Chinatown paints most of its characters as being guilty of something but also being victims. It makes you uncertain of all the characters and wary of the twists and turns that happen. This is a film with layers upon layers but everything just flows well and even if you’ve seen the film and you know what happens, the picture is still emotionally effective. The suspense is like a thick cloud that continues to grow from scene to scene.

John A. Alonzo handled the cinematography and this is probably the film he is most known for, even though he also did a stellar job with 1983’s Scarface. Before this picture, he worked on Harold and Maude and Vanishing Point. This film alone should have really made Alonzo’s career and even though he worked in Hollywood until his death in 2001, later in his career he worked on straightforward comedies like The Meteor ManHousesitter and Overboard. At least he went out with a good last effort with Deuces Wild, which wasn’t a great movie but it was a period film that captured 1950s Brooklyn quite well.

Roman Polanski would go on to be embroiled in controversy due to allegedly drugging and raping a thirteen year-old girl. He fled to France, where he has lived since the 1970s, never returning to the United States. He continued to make films, a dozen or so in fact, but there are only two of them that I found to be good, The Ninth Gate and The Pianist, both of which came out over twenty-five years after Chinatown. Polanski was never quite the auteur that he was, after fleeing the States and leaving behind the Hollywood system.

Chinatown is a true classic, though. In my opinion, it is Polanski’s best work. Jack Nicholson would try to replicate the film with a sequel that he directed in 1990 called The Two Jakes. It’s pretty good but it’s no Chinatown.