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, 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.

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