In a town of lepers, J.J. Gittes is the one with the most fingers.
A sequel to a film noir classic, The Two Jakes spins a complicated tale of adultery, greed, and murder set against the backdrop of booming post-World War II Los Angeles. While the comparisons with Chinatown are inevitable, they are not entirely fair. The Two Jakes deserves to be considered on its own merits as a worthy addition to the genre.
It is perhaps unusual to review a sequel before its predecessor, but in the case of The Two Jakes that this was of some importance. Chinatown is a tremendous film noir classic and rightfully garners a lot of attention and praise, but usually, as with the DVD release, this leaves The Two Jakes out in the cold. This is a darned shame, as the writing talents of Robert Towne have again evoked the complex moral fabric of a place and a time and the rarely used directing talents of Jack Nicholson brings it to life before our eyes.
Gittes Investigations is prospering, with its own building, suite of well-appointed offices, staff, and all the well to do private investigation firm would need. It's just another day of matrimonial work when Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is hired by Mr. Berman (Harvey Keitel) to do surveillance and make a wire recording of Mr. Berman confronting his wife in the middle of her adulterous encounter in a motel room. Matters do not go according to plan when Mr. Berman produces a gun and kills "the other man."
Naturally, the police are called in and an investigation ensues, led by the slimy Lt. Loach (David Keith). Jake Gittes gets a nasty shock when he learns that the other man is in fact Mark Bodine, Berman's business partner! A bizarre confrontation with Mrs. Bodine (Madeline Stowe) and a name from the past on the wire recording that was made at the motel convinces Jake that something strange is going on. It gets even stranger when Mrs. Bodine's attorney, Chuck Newty (Frederic Forrest) presents Jake with a choice—either help prove that Berman premeditated killing Bodine, so that his widow can take the enormously profitable real estate business from Berman, or be sued and ruined financially. Jake figures its time to talk to his client, but a trip out to the B&B residential development leaves him with only flashbacks to the past, a concussion, and a brief, cool meeting with Mrs. Berman (Meg Tilly).
Jake knows that his past has some meaning for this case, as the name on the recording was that of Katherine Mulwray, the child of a former client and lover who was tragically killed in Chinatown. He has never escaped the aftermath of her death, and this case is pulling him back into the past once again. Soon more pressure comes, now in the form of smooth talking criminal Mickey Nice (Rubén Blades) and his muscle mountain Liberty Levine (Paul A. DiCocco Jr.). They want the Berman wire recording. Badly. Very Badly. Jake awakes to the ministrations of Mrs. Bodine, whose sudden appearance owes to her desire to convince Jake to prove Berman premeditated the murder. Well, that, and some other desires.
Having reached an (ahem) accommodation with Mrs. Bodine, Jake and his associates do some more detective work, which leads them to a new player. Earl Rawley (Richard Farnsworth) is an oil tycoon with mysterious links to the late Mr. Bodine and his wife, who is keeping Chuck Newty's expensive meter running and who just may have kept one of Berman's men, Tyrone Otley (Tracey Walter), from letting slip to Jake something of importance. Jake figures its about time to take another try at Mrs. Berman, and this time he convinces her to tell him what he wants to know if he can prove to her that her husband premeditated the murder.
Sniffing the trail, Jake turns up on Earl Rawley's doorstep for some polite conversation. Mr. Rawley is polite and pleasant, but tight-lipped about any details of consequence. Jake has some ideas and definite suspicions, but still knows he lacks important pieces of the puzzle. When he tries to pump the reluctant Tyrone Otley for information, he gets caught up on a vice sweep and winds up across a desk from the leering Lt. Loach. They exchange mutual pleasantries, "dance" for a bit, and then part ways. As he is on his way out (thanks to two helpful patrolmen), Jake has a revelation when he sees two deliverymen gawking at the fracas.
Jake now knows the what and the how, but still is obsessed with the why. A friendly game of golf with Berman and a little burglary fill in the missing links, particularly when Mrs. Berman shows up at Jake's house for a real heart to heart talk. Having unraveled the whole tangled web of half-truths, hidden motives, and secrets, Jake finds that he must sacrifice the truth in order to preserve the promises of his past. In the end, justice finds a way to punish the guilty and protect the truly innocent, even if the means are as gray as Jake's life has become.
The video transfer does substantial justice to the lush visuals and vibrant cinematography of The Two Jakes. Video noise is limited, digital enhancement artifacts are non-existent, blacks are solid, and flesh tones are accurate. The color saturation is brilliant and beautiful, making some scenes virtual works of art. In particular, the scene of Jake's somber meditations backlit by the L.A. sunset (17:03) is supremely sublime. The outdoor scenes are crisp and clear, but some indoor, less lit scenes are prone to a noticeably softer picture. The primary drawback is the moderate appearance of flecks of dirt and film defects, which are all the more apparent in the crisp and colorful scenes that abound.
Film noir films are never going to blow your socks off with sound effects, so with this in mind The Two Jakes has a decent audio component. Dialogue is clearly understood, except for the very quiet conversation between Jake and Mrs. Berman at the very end (which necessitated a volume boost). The subwoofer is almost unused, except for a couple of explosions, some gunfire, and earthquake rumbles. Though not exploiting the entire range of sound, the audio is natural and pleasant, with occasionally nifty channel effects and a suitably dramatic score.
The Two Jakes is not quite a sequel; it is more like the second half of an autobiography. J.J. Gittes appears in both movies, but as different people. Here, he is a little heavier, a few years older, and burdened by regrets and tragedies of the past. You can see it in the way Jack Nicholson (As Good As It Gets, Batman, The Shining) walks, talks and just looks, as he knows this character like the back of his hand. His namesake is played by Harvey Keitel (Lulu on the Bridge, Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs), a compelling actor in his own right who gives Jake Berman the necessary strength and humanity to be convincing. Madeline Stowe (12 Monkeys, Last of the Mohicans, Stakeout) seemed a little off as Mrs. Bodine, and Meg Tilly was adequate as Mrs. Berman but lacked the emotional depth that is important in the latter stages of the movie. The rest of the cast (many of whom also appeared in Chinatown) fill their roles capably, keeping the atmosphere and moving the story along.
A common criticism leveled against the story is that it is too convoluted and takes a good while to unfold to its conclusion. This does have some merit, as even on repeat viewings I can lose track of the action if I am not paying attention, and it is very true that The Two Jakes can be casual in its pacing. However, these two me are not major impediments to enjoyment of the film. What you get is a finely crafted story with close attention to detail, both in the links to the past of Chinatown and the present mystery, and an extended consideration of how a moment frozen in time can continue to affect lives and fortunes far into the future. The police may have ethics that tend to the black and white, but the rest of humanity in The Two Jakes lives and breathes a spectrum of gray.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Paramount is still lacking when it comes to including even a basic set of extra content on its discs. Sadly, they saw fit to only include the letterboxed theatrical trailer, and naught else. This is one movie where the comments and insights of the creative team that brought The Two Jakes to life would have been valuable. The monumental task of making a sequel to a classic like Chinatown, the many years it took to bring it to the screen, and the rumors of The Two Jakes being a "problem picture" would have been fruitful grist for the commentary (or featurette) mill, even more so here than with its more celebrated parent.
Another pet peeve of mine is the horribly limited number of chapter stops. How come we get only fourteen for a movie that spans over two hours? It's inexcusable. The whole point of having chapter stops is so we can easily skip to our favorite parts of a movie when we are so inclined, but that's a lot harder when you don't give the viewer very many chapter stops in the first place.
If you have the patience to let a movie unfold on its own terms and can drink in the lush, leisurely visuals as the plot twists and turns, then I strongly recommend The Two Jakes for rental or purchase. However, given the limited features for the price ($30), the casual fans of film noir may wish to wait until they can find it at a bargain.
The film's only crime is to be a sequel to a classic, but Paramount ought to be paid a visit from Mickey Nice and Liberty Levine for the criminal lack of even basic extra content.
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