Movie Review

The Two Jakes (1990)

MPAA Rating: R
Jack Nicholson, The Two Jakes | JACK NICHOLSON
Image credit: Everett Collection

Details Rated: R; Length: 138 minutes; Genres: Drama, Mystery and Thriller; With: Harvey Keitel and Jack Nicholson; Distributor: Paramount Pictures

If Raymond Chandler had ever been possessed by Shakespeare’s ghost, the result might’ve been something like Chinatown, as perfect a movie as any ever made. It’s probably the only detective tale that’s also a tragedy for the ages — and it might have been only a nifty neo-noir, if not for the occasionally dissonant sensibilities of writer Robert Towne and director Roman Polanski,recalled in an hour of new featurettes here. The plot twists ultimately hinge on the trust — or lack thereof — between cocky PI Jake Gittes (Nicholson) and his vulnerable client (Faye Dunaway). Polanski says Towne didn’t want the two to sleep together…which Towne denies. But all agree that Polanski — begrudgingly working in L.A. for the first time since the 1969 murder of his wife, Sharon Tate — insisted on twisting Towne’s less fatalistic original finale into one of filmdom’s most profoundly unhappy endings. Amazingly, the 1974 masses didn’t mind: The convolutions, wisecracks, and evocation of a golden ’30s L.A. represented the most pleasurable trip to hell audiences ever had.

When a Towne-scripted, Nicholson directed sequel, The Two Jakes, appeared 16 years later, cinephiles and critics muttered, “Forget it, Jake — it’s not Chinatown.” Its tortured history of false starts and infighting is only glancingly alluded to in this disc’s 18-minute supplement, where sole interviewee Nicholson remains proud of his directorial effort — not unreasonably. Jakes is often cited alongside Godfather Part III as a warning against returning to a classic too belatedly, and Towne’s story — revolving around a seemingly murderous thug (Harvey Keitel) and his mysterious wife (an insufficiently enigmatic Meg Tilly) — could have used Polanski, again, to find a way to make the stakes devastatingly personal for Jake. But for everything that’s wrong, other things go deliciously right: Vilmos Zsigmond’s period photography; multiple earthquakes that only an L.A.-phile like Nicholson could have nailed; a weirdly funny tryst between a freshly pummeled Jack and a voracious Madeleine Stowe. You can complain that Jakes devalues an iconic original, but some of us will trade that for the privilege of spending another 2 1⁄4 hours in such a lovingly re-created lost world. Chinatown: A Jakes: B

Originally posted Nov 08, 2007 Published in issue #964 Nov 16, 2007 Order article reprints

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