The Two Jakes: the past never goes away


I love detective movies, and my tastes pretty much line up with the accepted canon of greatness: The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, Out of the Past, Laura, The Thin Man, and so forth. And I have a soft spot for cross-genre mashups: Blade Runner, In the Mouth of Madness, Angel Heart.

But one of my favorites almost always gets blank looks.

The Two Jakes is the 1990 sequel to Chinatown, one of the major works of both the seventies and the detective genre. The Two Jakes isn’t a defining classic like its predecessor, but neither is it the total failure of popular assumption. Instead it’s a commentary on both the first film, and on the way the past is always with us in general. It’s a sequel in that it involves the same characters, but in a greater sense it’s a standalone story that uses Chinatown as a metatext. Normally I have a low tolerance for all things “meta,” since they usually also involve wink-wink irony and nudge-nudge breaking of the fourth wall to let the audience in on the joke. But The Two Jakes plays it straight, and honest.

The film begins with JJ “Jake” Gittes, again played by Jack Nicholson, helping Jake Berman (Harvey Keitel) catch his unfaithful wife in the act. I won’t get into the plot, since it’s a) really convoluted and b) part of the fun, but it does eventually tie into the events of Chinatown, so much so that a refresher viewing might be in order. The film is gorgeous to look at, feels authentically of its period (1948) and brims with great character actors in supporting roles. The script is again by Robert Towne, but instead of Roman Polanski directing, this time it’s Nicholson himself.

I enjoy rewatching The Two Jakes a lot more than Chinatown. It’s not just the earlier film’s ghastly plot twist, or its nihilistic, almost mythically-depressing ending. The characters in The Two Jakes, both good guys and bad, are more fun to hang out with. A big reason for that is Nicholson’s actor-centric direction, which gives the cast plenty of room to work. This could be interpreted as padding, and some critics berate the film for it, but those critics mistakenly expect another Chinatown. The Two Jakes is a different story, with a different point to make, and judging it against the earlier film does it a disservice.

Read a New York Times article on the film while it was in production here.

If you’ve seen The Two Jakes, or if this article prompts you to check it out, leave a comment and let me know what you think.

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