Directed by Jack Nicholson
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 137 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, 2.0 English; 2.0 French, Spanish, Portuguese
Subtitles: English, Spanish, French, Portuguese
Release Date: November 6, 2007
Review Date: December 31, 2007
The biggest mystery about The Two Jakes, the sequel to the 1974 masterpiece Chinatown, is how such brilliant source material could have inspired such a plodding follow-up. It isn’t that The Two Jakes is a bad film so much as it’s a lifeless one, a heroic attempt to dig gold twice from the same mine that simply seems tapped out. The mood is right, the mystery elements are in place, and quite a few actors from the original film are back in key roles, but it just can’t measure up to the brilliance of Roman Polanski’s neo-noir classic.
Set eleven years after the events of Chinatown, private eye Jake Gittes isn’t as quick of step as he was, but he’s lost none of the sass, quick patter, or weary cynicism that brought him into contact with mobster types in the first film. References to Chinatown are inevitable in a discussion of The Two Jakes, not only because that was Gittes’ first film appearance but also because events in that first story have an uncomfortable way of serpentining back into this new adventure.
Gittes becomes involved in what appears to be a standard adultery case involving businessman Harvey Keitel’s partner having an affair with Keitel’s wife (Meg Tilly). Before long, however, murder, blackmail, robbery, and deception all evolve from this seemingly simple triangle situation. Using some newfangled equipment for 1948 (a tape recorder), Gittes has recorded a conversation the lovers were having prior to being discovered by hubby Keitel. During their exchange, the name “Katherine Mulwray” is mentioned dredging up for Gittes the harrowing memories of the mystery woman Evelyn Mulwray whom he fell for and later saw murdered in Chinatown.
Katherine, her child of incest, had disappeared recently, and no amount of sleuthing by Gittes has enabled him to learn her whereabouts. So he finds himself both knee-deep in trouble when Keitel kills his business partner and unable to block out the memory of the Mulwray family child who saw her mother killed and for whom he feels oddly responsible.
The pacing of The Two Jakes by director Jack Nicholson is somewhat lumbering, and we often aren’t completely clear how certain characters relate to one another. There is a nightclub owner Mickey Nice (Ruben Blades) who’s somehow involved in Keitel’s dirty dealings, and a defense attorney (Eli Wallach) also seems more important to the plot than he inevitably is. Many names from Chinatown are mentioned in passing making a familiarity with that movie almost a necessity to understanding and appreciating much about The Two Jakes.
Though his pacing is glacial, Nicholson shows some style as a director and certainly comes up with some unusual and alluring camera placements. He also seems much more conscious of color compositions than Polanski was in the original movie. There are some dusk shots and a couple of explosions which are exceptionally hypnotic in their look and staging.
Nicholson provides a sly running commentary on the soundtrack that’s right in keeping with a noir mystery, and his performance overall is adequate. Harvey Keitel, Meg Tilly, and Madelaine Stowe (as the widow of Keitel’s partner) acquit themselves admirably. Richard Farnsworth is unfortunately underused as an oil baron bilking innocent people. He could have brought some of the same sinister joviality that John Huston brought to the original, but screenwriter Robert Towne hasn’t provided him with enough potent scenes to make his power fully felt.
Towne’s central mystery could have worked with a better director and perhaps another rewrite to make things a bit clearer to the audience. As it is, The Two Jakes is a good try but not quite good enough.
The theatrical 1.85:1 aspect ratio is presented here in a very good anamorphic transfer. Though cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond veers the look of the film heavily toward brown, the sharpness of the image is never in question. Yes, flesh tones do look overly tanned, and the blacks that are present are adequate without achieving that deep rich tone that makes colors around it pop. Still, the film looks very good, and the browns do help suggest the earlier time period of the film. The film has been divided into 14 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track uses the rear channels primarily for Van Dyke Parks’ music though an occasional ambient effect does turn up there from time to time. The film’s two major explosions do get exploited well in the sound design and feature adequate LFE activity along with a few California tremors whose sound might have been stepped up just a touch.
“Jack on Jakes” is an 18-minute look back on the film by director-star Jack Nicholson discussing the original plans for a trilogy (the third film was to be titled Gittes Vs. Gittes), the casting of the movie, the problems of doing a period picture in modern Los Angeles, and the disappointing reception the movie received. It’s an honest and informative featurette on the movie though it‘s presented in nonanamorphic letterbox.
The original theatrical trailer is also in nonanamorphic letterbox and seems as jumbled and lethargic as the film ultimately was. It runs 3 minutes.
For mystery lovers and especially admirers of the brilliant Chinatown, The Two Jakes is a must-see for a continuation of the adventures of Jake Gittes. Yes, you’ll likely be disappointed in the finished product though I must admit that seeing the film several times over the years has aided a bit in my appreciating what it has to offer a bit more.