- Year: 1990
- Director: Jack Nicholson
- Starring: Jack Nicholson, Harvey Keitel, Meg Tilly
Oh 1990, the year when the two greatest films of 1974 both got sequels. However, while we are still talking about The Godfather Part III to this day (not usually for good reasons), The Two Jakes has fallen off the radar a bit. Many people’s reactions are along the lines of “There’s a sequel to Chinatown?” So why has it been somewhat forgotten?
Well, for one, it’s not called Chinatown II. Since the Los Angeles Chinatown isn’t relevant plot-wise or even thematically, calling it Chinatown II would be like Troll 2 (which features no trolls except the screenwriter) or Taken 3 (where nothing or no one gets taken, barring the audience’s suspension of disbelief). In addition to the artistic integrity in giving the film an entirely different title, we have Jack Nicholson reprising a role. He’s only done this twice, and not only was this his first time doing it, it remains the only time he’s reprised a leading role. J.J. “Jake” Gittes is obviously a character he cares about.
Interestingly, screenwriter Robert Towne envisioned Chinatown as a trilogy viewed from the perspective of Gittes, but ultimately being about the development of Los Angeles. The first is about water, The Two Jakes is about oil, and the third which would have involved either land or transportation (reports vary). After a long and stressful development process, writer and director Robert Towne left production of The Two Jakes and Nicholson himself took over.
Because of this long production process, The Two Jakes is set in 1948, eleven years after the original, but was made sixteen years after the original. Los Angeles is enjoying the post-war boom, and Jake Gittes (Nicholson) is doing his best to enjoy his own personal success. He now runs Gittes Investigations, a two-story upgrade from his small office in the first. He has a membership at the local country club, he’s engaged, and he’s clearly put on some weight since the events of the first.
Gittes has been hired by Julius “Jake” Berman (Harvey Keitel) to follow his wife to verify that she’s cheating on him. Gittes helps set Berman up for confronting his wife Kitty (Meg Tilly) in the middle of her afternoon tryst. Gittes listens and records from a neighboring hotel room as Berman confronts his wife and proceeds to murder her lover. He runs in, but it’s too late and Berman is taken in for the murder.
Matters are complicated a bit, when it is revealed that the man Berman murdered was his own real estate business partner, Mark Bodine, who we learn had been blackmailing him. Gittes didn’t know this, but it doesn’t look good, as it appears he could have helped pre-meditate the murder. More complications come to light when Gittes listens to the wire recording and hears Bodine and Kitty discussing Katherine Mulwray, the daughter of Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway’s character in the original). Since the events of the first, Gittes obviously feels responsible for Katherine’s safety, although he is not sure where exactly she has gotten to. He knows she has escaped the clutches of her now-dead incestuous father/grandfather Noah Cross, but he’s lost track after that.
The ending of Chinatown is such a gut-punch that it could be very easy to do a sequel wrong. There’s obviously a temptation to show that Katherine got to a better place almost immediately, but that would undo the nihilism that the ending of the first brought about. Jake Gittes blames himself for the events of the first, and even as the years have gone by, his anger and disappointment have not gone away. Nothing really makes him happy, successful as he may be. Honestly, this is exactly where this character would be eleven years later. It’s a totally believable character development, which puts The Two Jakes off to a promising start.
Gittes comes across a huge cast of new characters including Berman’s lawyer Cotton Weinberger (Eli Wallach), his mob connection Michael “Mickey Nice” Weisskopf (Ruben Blades), Bodine’s widow Lillian (Madeline Stowe) and her lawyer Chuck Newty (Frederic Forest). Everyone wants the wire recording of the confrontation, and they all have their ways of trying to get it. Lillian seduces Gittes, and while he accepts her advances, he still doesn’t let her have the recording. It’s a bit of a shame to see such a standard femme fatale character here, while the original went to hell-and-back to deconstruct that archetype. Madeline Stowe is a fantastic actress, and she still manages to be memorable, but this is a bit of a misstep writing-wise.
In addition, Gittes still has to deal with his past in the form of some returning characters. Perry Lopez reprises his role as police captain Lou Escobar, who lost a leg in the war and has a slightly better working relationship with Gittes than he did in the first, although they still don’t particularly care for each other. Also working with the police is the younger Detective Loach (David Keith), the son of Loach from the first film. The senior Loach didn’t exactly have a large role in Chinatown, but he was the one who shot the fatal bullet at Evelyn Mulwray. In a tense scene, Jake shoves his gun down Loach’s throat after he makes some incest jokes about Noah Cross. What’s interesting here is that Loach’s connection to the first film is his major role in this one, but someone who only saw Chinatown once in 1974 probably won’t remember the senior Loach. Since Chinatown is one of my favorite films of all time, I’ve seen it over-and-over and made the connection here, but I’m a little split on having the son of such a minor character being integral to Jake’s arc. On one hand, the film respects its audience by not explaining who Loach was. On the other, even someone who likes the film might not remember that was his name.
Gittes’ associate Lawrence Walsh (Joe Mantell) is still working for him as well, and we feel the close working relationship between the men in their scenes. Walsh was of course the one who uttered the famous “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown” line at the end of the first. For some reason, there’s one other character who returns, and it’s the smug “This is not a lending library” guy (Allan Warnick) from the hall of records. Again, he only appears in one scene, now as a notary who’s had his teeth kicked in by Mickey Nice for giving out too much information. I suppose this is karmic punishment for him being a pain to Gittes in the first film? The only thing is he never is given a name in the first film, so instead of feeling like a role reprisal, it will probably just leave viewers wondering if this was supposed to be the same guy or not.
You’ll note that most of my issues with this film are nitpicks, because there honestly aren’t any major problems with The Two Jakes. It occasionally drags, especially in the middle parts as it just feels like character-after-character wanting the wire recording, but we never lose interest. It’s not the perfect, tense and building slow burn of the first film, but it’s quite good.
Clues keep pointing to the oil business of Earl Rawley (Richard Farnsworth), who Gittes believes is drilling under the new homes that Jake Berman is building. Cigarette lighters have his business logo on them, and worst of all, Gittes suffered a head injury when he lit a cigarette at Berman’s housing community, which led to an explosion. This character obviously resembles Noah Cross (John Huston) in the first, but only in his business life. Rawley is in fact drilling under the homes, but we have no hints he is the depraved rapist that Cross was. It’s interesting that both Cross and Rawley refer to Gittes by a name no one else does. Cross constantly referred to him as “Mr. Gitts,” even when corrected, to assert dominance and make Gittes feel small and worthless. Rawley refers to him as John (Presumably what one of the J’s stands for), but it’s in hopes of creating a phony sense of friendship with him. Also, while he appears in a few other scenes, Rawley really only has the one big scene with Gittes. He’s dishonest with him about the drilling, Gittes sees right through it, and that’s all the more he needs to know.
The closest thing I have to a major issue with the film (and it’s still not a deal breaker) is the reveal of Katherine Mulwray. We know she has a part to play somehow, but the clues really aren’t that subtle. Here’s a reminder of what a young Katherine looked like in the first film.
And here is our first real look at Jake Berman’s wife Kitty.
Obviously, they want her to look like the actress from the original, because it’s the same character. Of course the look will be similar, but I wish it wasn’t so obvious that they were trying to hide her face in her early appearances, plus the fact that her name is Kitty, short for Katherine. Wouldn’t it be interesting if this wasn’t Katherine Mulwray, but Gittes kept seeing her in every case duet to his PTSD? I understand that would be an entirely different movie, but it would have been a unique way to go. However, if that’s my biggest issue with The Two Jakes, it’s on a good track. Meg Tilly is phenomenal in the role, playing someone who is both a child of incest and a victim herself. We do believe this is the same character, which is great once the “mystery” is revealed.
Bizarrely, the film also constantly hides the face of Gittes’ fiancee Linda until she breaks things off with him. I think the film is trying to tease the fact that maybe he’s engaged to Katherine Mulwray, but anyone who knows the character knows he would never do this. It’s a strange stylistic choice that wasn’t really necessary.
Up until the final scenes, The Two Jakes is a good film, but the final scenes really elevate it. Gittes discovers that Berman is dying of cancer and organized the whole scheme to protect Katherine after his death. Katherine knew nothing of the illness, a fact Gittes learns from their honest conversations. Having promised to always protect Katherine, Gittes alters the wire recording so it shows no evidence of murder or of the involvement of Katherine Mulwray, and the case is thrown out due to lack of evidence.
It is here where we start to see that the titular two Jakes really are reflections of each other. Sure, there are comparisons made in the opening scenes, but we’re unsure if they are authentic, or it’s just Jake Berman trying to force a connection with Gittes. Now we know that both Jakes feel they have to protect Katherine Mulwray, even if they have different ways of going about it. Berman will do anything it takes, even murder, to make sure she is safe. Gittes tried to protect the Mulwrays legally in Chinatown, only to find out he couldn’t, so here he, at first reluctantly, tampers with evidence to make sure Katherine is protected. Again, I applaud the filmmakers for not calling this film Chinatown II, because The Two Jakes really is a perfect title.
The final scene between the two Jakes is not only the best scene in the film, but it’s the closest this film comes to the perfection of the first. Berman reveals that he hid the disease from his wife, even sleeping in a different bed, which drove her into the arms of his business associate, who was also unaware of the disease. Mark Bodine’s blackmailing was only ever about the identity of Katherine Mulwray. Murder was the only way Berman would have assured Katherine’s money and identity were protected. Harvey Keitel’s breakdown in this scene is truly something to behold, transforming the murderer into a layered, sympathetic character in a matter of minutes. It’s some of Keitel’s best work. However, we still see that Berman isn’t entirely sympathetic, when he reveals that he also was happy to kill Bodine for sleeping with his wife. He’s a complex and caring character, yes, but he is still a villain.
The oil starts flowing into the model home due to an earthquake, and Berman insists that Gittes and Mickey Nice (who now doesn’t seem all that threatening) leave. He says he’ll stay and “have a smoke,” knowing an autopsy would begin to uncover the whole plot. Mickey and Gittes get out, leaving Berman to blow up in the home and the scheme to stay under wraps.
The film’s epilogue is uncomfortable, to say the least. At Gittes’ office, Katherine is played a recording of Berman explaining what happened. She asks Gittes if the past ever goes away, and he says she’ll have to work on it. She kisses him, but he stops her twice. On first viewing, I thought my discomfort with this scene was a sign of poor writing, but I was wrong. Katherine is a victim of years of incest, and we are supposed to be incredibly uncomfortable with her making this move on Gittes. If he had responded to it with any hint of wanting it, it would ruin the movie, but the fact that he tells her she doesn’t know what she wants, while still caring for her, makes it work. Both Chinatown films end on extreme feelings of discomfort, and in both cases, that’s the intended feeling. As Katherine leaves and tells Gittes to think of her “from time to time,” Jake tells her “It never goes away.” It perhaps is trying a bit too hard to replicate the punch of “Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown,” but it’s still a relatively poignant ending.
The Two Jakes has a convoluted plot, and I didn’t even get to all the side characters and minor subplots. It’s perhaps a little too convoluted, but with the conclusion it leads to, so be it. It’s not the flawless screenplay of the first, but if you can put that aside, there is a lot to glean from The Two Jakes. In addition to the fantastic performances and smart writing, the cinematography is absolutely gorgeous. Like the first film (and unlike most classic noirs), the gorgeous Californian scenery is conflicted with the dark and gritty subject matter. The music doesn’t stand out as much as Jerry Goldsmith’s classic score, but Van Dyke Parks does a good job at creating a mellow and moody score that complements the scenes nicely. If you like Chinatown, give The Two Jakes a watch, or even better, give it the two watches it deserves to truly get what it’s going for. Let’s check out the final score.
Story (22/30 Points)
There are flaws along the way, but it leads to an amazing conclusion. It’s a film that cares about its plot points and its characters.
Returning Characters (13/15 Points)
Nicholson returns to the role of Gittes, and we believe we’re watching the same character eleven years later. He doesn’t ham it up or do a lot of the typical Nicholson-isms (love them as we may). There are occasional moments where he might be a bit too Jack, but again, these are nitpicks. Meg Tilly’s performance as Katherine Mulwray is brilliantly tragic, and it’s nice to see Walsh return. I also love seeing the Escobar character come back, as we’d wonder where the relationship between he and Gittes is now.
New Characters (9/15 Points)
Harvey Keitel is the stand-out as Jake Berman, but there are a few too many new characters that do too little. It’s a bummer to see such a standard femme fatale in the character of Lillian Bodine, but at least she doesn’t factor too much into the film. The film manages to mostly waste Madeline Stowe, Frederic Forest and Eli Wallach, which is a shame.
Experience (17/20 Points)
It’s a beautiful film to look at, in both the day and night scenes. It’s influenced by the first without trying to copy it. The music is fine, but it doesn’t leave the impression the original did.
Originality (18/20 Points)
It tells a new story, while keeping the themes of the original. The characters have developed to a believable place, and the film never feels like it’s trying to capitalize on the first one to make more money.
FINAL SCORE: 79%
Ultimately, I quite like The Two Jakes. However, if Chinatown isn’t a film you’ve watched and re-watched, it probably won’t be your thing. It has a fairly narrow target audience. It’s just one I happen to be in.