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Non-Review Review: The Two Jakes

I’m going to be completely honest here, and possibly ruin my reputation as a film boffin. Until I held the DVD of The Two Jakes in my hands about ten years ago, I didn’t even know there was a sequel to Chinatown. The belated sequel languished in development hell after real life intervened – there was no way that Polanski could direct a sequel to perhaps his most famous film (at least not in Los Angeles, where it was set) and the movie that followed became caught in a tug of war between actor Jack Nicholson and writer Robert Towne, both of whom wanted a shot at directing. Nicholson won, but one can’t help but get the feeling in watching the film that the movie might have been better served with a stronger and more impartial director.

Will the bad guy get his just deserts this time around?

As Robert Towne originally wrote it, Chinatown was intended as the first in a trilogy about the social history of the city of Los Angeles. While the original film explored the issue of water in the thirties, the sequel is concerned with oil in the forties. Though the third film was never properly scripted, there’s been a bit of confusion about the aspect of Los Angeles that it would have explored. It has been suggested that Who Framed Roger Rabbit borrowed from Towne’s proposed third film, exploring the construction of the freeway, while Nicholson himself has suggested that the film would have dealt with Howard Hughes and his fixation with aviation.

The Two Jakes is a very troubled film. Even without hearing the disagreements around its creation, it’s clear that there was a lot happening behind the scenes which perhaps compromised the film. There’s no sense that there was a figure there during production to reign the film in when it needed to be reigned in. For example, Roman Polanski famously completely cut Jake Gittes’ narration from the original Chinatown, believing that it would allow the audience to experience the mystery as he does – it also allows the character to appear far more introspective (rather than expository). However, the sequel features extensive voice-over narration, the kind which feels almost like it was cast off from a Raymond Chandler novel – the kind of narration which suggests you shouldn’t bother putting any toast on, because this one’s gonna be hardboiled. It’s awkward and takes the viewer out of the experience, but it also undermines the character. Gittes always seemed a lot more closed off than most private detective characters, but here he is literally open like an audio-book for the audience’s pleasure.

A man in his fifties...

Another problem with Nicholson’s production is essentially that it’s never sure if it’s a follow-up or a direct continuation. Is it another mystery involving Jake Gittes which exposes the sordid underbelly of life in historical Los Angeles, or is it designed to offer closure to the events of the original film? It seems to adopt an approach halfway between one and the other, which can’t help but feel a little unsatisfactory – the two elements don’t sit well together, and are both heavily cut down in order to keep the film a reasonable running time.

However, the central problem of the film is that it lacks a strong central vision to tie it all together. Nicholson is certainly a competent director – his depiction of fifties Los Angeles looks and feels reasonably authentic – but his production ultimately feels a little hallow. Though all the pieces are in place, the movie feels strangely hallow. There is no “atmosphere” to speak of, it feels like any other period piece, rather than adopting the same rich approach of the original film. It just ends up looking and feeling empty.

Perhaps some of this is down to the movie overplaying its hand – if Chinatown was something of a labyrinth, figuring that viewers were smart enough to make the logical leaps, The Two Jakes is pretty much a straight line. Everything is explained and laid out in terms that even an idiot could understand. Rather than Jerry Goldsmith’s restrained and sinister score, Van Dyke Parks offers a soundtrack that insists on telling us how to react to each and every scene. There’s no ambiguity or mystery here – it’s all made abundantly clear.

It isn’t all that bad – Nicholson has assembled a fine cast of talented performers. Harvey Keitel pops up as the second Jake of the title, David Keith plays the son of the officer who fired the fateful bullet at the climax of the original, Ruben Blades is a sinister hoodlum, Madelin Stowe is a much more straightforward femme fatale and Eli Wallach is a lawyer. Tom Waits even has a cameo as a police officer. It’s a great cast, it’s just a shame that they don’t really do much – they seem to wander in and out of scenes at random, rather than moving with any purpose through the film.

However, there’s no real heart in all this, which is perhaps the most disappointing factor. It isn’t a terrible film, but it isn’t a good one. It’s a fair-to-middling detective film, and that’s if you’re feeling particularly generous. Perhaps the famous final line of the original film is best applied to this sequel.

Forget it, it’s The Two Jakes.

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