Things would seem to be looking up for private investigator Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson). Business is booming in Los Angeles circa 1948 and he’s got a deluxe office, a spot at the country club, and a wealthy fiancée. The fast-talking, resourceful smartass has gained some padding around the middle, moves a little slower, and doesn’t bounce back from a beating as fast, but in his middle age he’s still virile and willing to stick his neck out. And of course, he’s still haunted by the unforgettably tragic aftermath of what he saw in Chinatown.
The Two Jakes allows Nicholson to reprise one of his most memorable characters as a way of seeing whether he’s still got it. (The film was made right after he gave a larger-than-life kabuki-style performance as the Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman and prior to chewing up Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men.) To top it off, when screenwriter Robert Towne passed on the directorial gig, Nicholson chose to direct himself. He handles both chores with relative confidence and ease, shooting scenes in a low-key, breezy, conversational mode when he’s not lifting shots wholesale from Polanski. Whenever Gittes is on the case, the camera is perched right over his shoulder following the action.
Using shots and a slew of character actors as homage to a classic movie he starred in doesn’t feel cheap here; instead it feels like a bit of a reunion. Maybe that’s why The Two Jakes is never as poignant or unnerving as its predecessor. What it lacks in aggressive storytelling, it makes up for in character. Jake Gittes was an excellent role for Nicholson, and he slides back into it easily. At this point in his life, Gittes seems to accept that there are some things in this world he’s not meant to understand, but he doggedly pursues his leads all the same. This time the shenanigans involve land-grabs for oil, and while the center of it all seems to be real estate tycoon Jake Berman (Harvey Keitel), the name of “Mulwray” pops up and lurches Gittes into an obsessive quest.
Chinatown was about evil lurking underneath pretty façades and a bright Los Angeles sun. But evil was presented as an identifiable human desire, both carnal and filthy. The basis for crime in The Two Jakes falls into the realm of idealistic passions. Keitel’s Jake plays his cards close to the vest, the better not to expose his too-big heart. His wife, Kitty (Meg Tilly), is almost hermetically sealed underneath various veils, wigs, and Tilly’s icy performance, until one gradually realizes she holds the key to the mystery. By far the most enjoyable supporting turn is by Madeleine Stowe as a brassy sexpot whose lawyers talk tough on her behalf, but she just melts when she’s trying to seduce Gittes. “All right,” he sighs, in one of the more memorable lines of dialogue: “Get on your knees, put your ass in the air, and don’t move until I say to.”
There’s quite a bit of plot in The Two Jakes, but why bother rehashing the whole shebang? Instead, take it as a love letter from Nicholson to himself. With each encounter, whether it’s derailing the cops, chasing women, or hounding suspects and liars, the actor effortlessly throws his charisma around along with his weight. He’s shot in golden sunsets by genius cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond as if he were a rumpled icon, often in the very center of the frame, and reminding us that Jack Nicholson being Jake Gittes is enough to carry a movie, even if afterward you can’t remember a damn thing about what you just saw.