Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) has a speciality, he is very adept at divorce cases in his line of work as a private detective and believes himself to be one of the best in the business where hardly anyone else in his field has the talent he does. It's a matter of patience, of setting up the client and the object of suspicion to make the best of both of them, and today he is meeting in his office with Jake Berman (Harvey Keitel) with a view to exposing his wife as an adulterer. What they must do is set up Berman to burst into the room when she is in flagrante delicto, and as this is being recorded on a bug he has some lines to say for the benefit of the courts. What Gittes didn't expect was a gun…
It's often forgotten that Chinatown has a sequel, and The Two Jakes was it, probably because most fans of that nineteen-seventies classic were perfectly satisfied with everything it had to say about corruption and the exploitation of the poor by the very rich and felt that anything further would be superfluous. That did not stop its screenwriter Robert Towne from wanting to make a trilogy of Gittes movies, each dealing with a separate aspect of Los Angeles history and the nefarious deals that went on to make the most of them; in Chinatown that was water, in the never made third instalment that was transport, and here it was the oil business that had captured his attention.
The trouble with that was not many people, even fans of the first, were keen to see what happened after Gittes was told, "Forget it Jake, it's Chinatown," since that was one of the all-time great endings and wrapped up the detective's story with poignancy and anger. Who really cared where his life progressed after that? If you thought about it at all, you would be content to know he continued to work as a private eye and was forever haunted by what had happened to Evelyn Mulwray, which was more or less what The Two Jakes told you and bolted on a murder mystery to add intrigue, except it was not really a murder mystery and followed the same path as before.
There were eccentricities which marked it out as the work of talented people who alas were flogging a dead horse by 1990, and that was after production had started in the mid-eighties only to break down almost completely when producer Robert Evans insisted on making the most of his former career as a matinee idol and appeared as the other Jake. This plan was scuppered by Towne refusing to work with him in that capacity, unimpressed by both Evans' thespian qualities and his latest, somewhat extreme cosmetic surgery which was not only all wrong for the character but was difficult to see what part it would be appropriate for at all. Nicholson, invested in the project both financially and artistically, performed a rescue job that took years and eventually saw one of his rare forays behind the camera.
Among the strangeness, all luminously photographed by Vilmos Zsigmund, were the leading ladies. Madeleine Stowe was extremely bizarre as the widow of the adulterer who Berman shot, all twitches and mounting hysteria, and her sex scene (or to be more specific, pre-sex scene) with Nicholson was among the most striking for all the wrong reasons sequences of the nineties, not that it seemed to stick in the mind of most who witnessed it, which was curious in itself. Meg Tilly was the other lead actress, normally raven-haired and dark-eyed but here to make her look more like Faye Dunaway from the first movie was strawberry blonde and blue-eyed, rendering her even more spacey than usual. There were regular earthquakes felt to indicate the drilling for oil was causing all sorts of seismic trouble and act as a metaphor for the corruption that the bad guys were getting away with, but as your interest wandered so did the solution to the conundrum that didn't seem much of a puzzle in the first place. Of the poor 1990 sequels this was behind The Godfather Part III in notoriety, but that was down to its general reception being a shrug. Music by Van Dyke Parks (who appears).