Directed by and starring Jack Nicholson, it also features Harvey Keitel, Meg Tilly, Madeleine Stowe, Richard Farnsworth, Frederic Forrest, David Keith, Rubén Blades, Tracey Walter and Eli Wallach. Reprising their roles from Chinatown are Joe Mantell, Perry Lopez, James Hong, Allan Warnick and, in a brief voice-over, Faye Dunaway. The character of Katherine Mulwray returns as well, played by Tilly. The musical score for the film is by Van Dyke Parks, who also appears as a prosecuting attorney. The screenplay is by Robert Towne, whose script for Chinatown won an Academy Award.
It was released by Paramount Pictures on August 10, 1990. The film was not a box office success and plans for a third film about J. J. Gittes, with him near the end of his life, were abandoned.
In Los Angeles in 1948, Julius "Jake" Berman (Keitel) hires private investigator J. J. "Jake" Gittes (Nicholson) to catch his wife, Kitty, in the act of committing adultery. During the sting, Berman kills his rival, who also happens to be his business partner in a real estate development company. Gittes, not having known this, suddenly finds himself under scrutiny for his role in the possible crime, all of which centers around a wire recording that captured the illicit love meeting, the confrontation, and the killing of Mark Bodine. It calls into question if Berman knew and killed his partner to wrest control of the partnership, making it murder, or was an act of jealousy, which may qualify as "temporary insanity" and be permitted as a defense to a charge of murder.
Gittes must convince LAPD captain Escobar (Lopez) that he should not be charged as an accomplice. Oddly, Berman seems unconcerned with the possibility that he may be accused of murder. Gittes has the recording, which Berman's attorney Cotton Weinberger (Wallach) and mobster friend Mickey Nice (Blades) both want, locked in a safe in his office in L.A., which is being rocked by earthquakes. Berman's housing development in the Valley also is experiencing seismic activities. Gittes is nearly killed in a gas explosion, waking to find Berman and wife Kitty (Tilly) standing over him.
Gittes has a confrontation, and later a sexual encounter, with Lilian Bodine (Stowe), the dead man's angry widow. He is presented with proof that Earl Rawley (Farnsworth), a wealthy and ruthless oil man, may be drilling under the Bodine and Berman development, though Rawley has denied it. This leads to a need to determine who owns the mineral rights to the land. Gittes discovers that the rights are owned by one Katherine Mulwray, daughter of Evelyn Mulwray, his love interest from twelve years prior. He also discovers that the deed transfers were executed in such a way as to attempt to hide Katherine Mulwray's prior ownership and continued claim of the mineral rights.
Gittes operatives have seen Berman in the company of a blond woman along with Mickey Nice and a huge bodyguard. With a bit of sleuthing Gittes determines that the woman is an oncologist and is treating Berman for cancer somewhere below the waist. Gittes confronts Berman with this knowledge and gets a full confession. Along the way, Gittes discovers that Berman is not going to survive and the entire set-up was to ensure that Kitty was protected once he died.
In order to get Kitty Berman to talk to him, Gittes must prove that Jake Berman set out to kill his partner. Once accomplished, Kitty agrees to meet Gittes and tell him what she knows about her husband. In the process of discussing Jake's possible motivations, mineral rights, and the possible whereabouts of Katherine Mulwray it is revealed that Kitty Berman and Katherine Mulwray are one and the same person. Kitty had never suspected that her husband is dying.
In order to prove premeditation, passion, and perhaps even connections to a woman long missing, seemingly everyone wants the recording, which Gittes refuses to give up until the day of the inquest. Somehow, Gittes edits the recording, leaving Katherine Mulwray's name chopped out of the dialog, shooting, and aftermath of Bodine's murder. This makes the inquest a short, satisfying meeting where the judge has no reason to suspect murder. Jake Berman is now free of criminal charges. Confronted with the knowledge Gittes has of his terminal illness, Berman, knowing the model house he is in is filled with natural gas, convinces Gittes and Nice to leave him alone in the house so he can "have a smoke." He doesn't want an autopsy to interfere with Kitty's inheritance. As they drive off, the house explodes.
The story ends with Kitty and Gittes in his office. They speak of regrets, and Kitty kisses Gittes, who rejects her advances, saying "That's your problem, kid. You don't know who you're kidding." She leaves, telling him to "Think of me time to time". Jake tells her, "It never goes away."Jack Nicholson as J. J. "Jake" Gittes
Harvey Keitel as Julius "Jake" Berman
Meg Tilly as Katherine "Kitty" Berman/Mulwray/Cross
Madeleine Stowe as Lillian Bodine
Eli Wallach as Cotton Weinberger
Rubén Blades as Michael "Mickey Nice" Weisskopf
Frederic Forrest as Chuck Newty
David Keith as Det. Lt. Loach
Richard Farnsworth as Earl Rawley
Tracey Walter as Tyrone Otley
Joe Mantell as Lawrence Walsh
James Hong as Kahn
Perry Lopez as Capt. Lou Escobar
Jeff Morris as Ralph Tilton
Rebecca Broussard as Gladys
Van Dyke Parks as Hannah
Pia Gronning as Elsa
Faye Dunaway as Evelyn Mulwray (voice)
Tom Waits as Plainclothes policeman (uncredited)
Made 16 years after its famous predecessor, the film had a very troubled production, and was supposed to be made around 1985. Originally, producer Robert Evans was to play the "second" Jake, but Towne, who was going to direct the film at that time, did not think he was the right choice and fired him. After this, Nicholson ended up directing (and it would be his last film to date).
Unlike its predecessor, the film performed poorly in terms of box office, was not nominated for any awards and critical reception was very mixed, although it found some success in the home media market. On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes the film has a rating of 65%, based on 17 reviews, with an average rating of 6/10. On Metacritic the film has a score of 56 out of 100, based on 17 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews".
Roger Ebert gave the movie 3.5/4 stars, writing that "every scene falls into place like clockwork [...] exquisite". Vincent Canby, writing for The New York Times, called it "an enjoyable if clunky movie". Variety called the film "a jumbled, obtuse yet not entirely unsatisfying follow-up to Chinatown". Desson Howe, writing for The Washington Post, said that "at best, the movie comes across as a competently assembled job, a wistful tribute to its former self. At worst, it's wordy, confusing and – here's an ugly word – boring".
Screenwriter Robert Towne originally planned a trilogy involving private investigator J. J. Gittes. The third movie, called Gittes vs. Gittes, was to be set in 1968 and deal with Gittes' divorce. However, after The Two Jakes was a commercial failure, plans for a third film were scrapped.