Combustible Celluloid
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With: Jack Nicholson, Harvey Keitel, Meg Tilly, Madeleine Stowe, Eli Wallach, Rubén Blades, Frederic Forrest, David Keith, Richard Farnsworth, Tracey Walter, Joe Mantell, James Hong, Perry Lopez, Tom Waits
Written by: Robert Towne
Directed by: Jack Nicholson
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 137
Date: 08/10/1990

The Two Jakes (1990)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Remembering Chinatown

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

It didn't take long for Chinatown (1974) to be considered an all-time classic, and its reputation only becomes more solidified with each passing year. By 1990, it was already an outrage, sacrilegious, to consider making a sequel. Actually, private detective J.J. Gittes was always supposed to have his own trilogy, but no matter how good Part 2 was, it would always and forever be compared unfavorably to its predecessor. And The Two Jakes is really good.

Since director Roman Polanski would not have been allowed to make the film in California, star Jack Nicholson took over as director; he had experience behind the camera (Drive, He Said, Goin' South). Everything else fell into place. Robert Towne again wrote the dense, complicated screenplay, Vilmos Zsigmond shot the orange-and-sunshine-colored visuals, and Van Dyke Parks built on Jerry Goldsmith's brilliant 1974 score. Many of the familiar faces of the original return, as well as some fresh ones.

Gittes' latest case involves helping a husband, real estate man Jake Berman (Harvey Keitel) catch his wife Kitty (Meg Tilly) cheating on him in a hotel room. Berman unexpectedly produces a gun and shoots the man, his business partner. The dead man's widow (Madeleine Stowe) shows up and raises a fuss. Everyone wants Gittes' wire recording of the murder. There's an investigation, and it's somehow connected to Jake's past. That's the best I can do to describe it, without going into more Los Angeles land deals and a few detective-story reveals. But suffice to say, it's smart and constantly intriguing.

If Nicholson's directing is a fine piece of work, and his performance is typically above par, he weirdly doesn't quite feel like Gittes anymore. In 1974, he was thinner and his voice came out in a higher register. By 1990, he had put on weight, moved differently used his eyes and face and body differently, and talked in a lower, slower drawl. In short, he had become a movie star, he had become himself, and it must have been impossible to play Gittes in the same way. The story does take place 10 years later, in 1948, and characters have been to war, but this doesn't quite explain it. He feels softer, like a big pillow, and easily out of breath.

That aside, I think The Two Jakes is the best Chinatown sequel anyone could reasonably expect, and it's very much worth a look. On a side note, Eli Wallach appeared in both this and The Godfather Part III the same year, another sequel that came exactly 14 years after its predecessor and received much the same treatment.

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