Chinatown Movie Review
Chinatown, the movie that all but put Jack Nicholson on the map, is being re-released on a Special Collector's Edition DVD. This Roman Polanski classic is the type of detective film you rarely see anymore (Ben Affleck's Gone Baby Gone may be the latest, closest example), yet thankfully it still stands up wonderfully even over 30 years later.
The movie follows Jake Gittes (Nicholson), a private detective who makes most of his money by investigating adultery cases. When he is hired by one affluent woman to spy on her husband, however, he quickly finds himself in over his head. While he does find evidence of adultery from the husband, it turns out that the woman who hired him in is not actually the wife. He soon crosses pass with the real Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) and learns that the case isn't at all about sexual affairs, but about something that could affect the whole region surrounding Los Angeles.
Nicholson has turned in lots of brilliant performances over the years, and I won't bother to list any of these here (as I'd have to list just about every movie he's ever starred in). But compared to his movies over the last two decades, where we almost expect Nicholson to be maniacal or a bit extreme, Chinatown presents him in a more natural way. According to one of the featurettes on the DVD, screenwriter Robert Towne was a personal friend of Nicholson and wrote the script just for him, and it definitely shows. Jake Gittes is impatient, sarcastic and intense, yet there are mannerisms about him that come off in a way the audience can more easily relate to. He is a normal man who can hold his own even when the odds are hugely against him, and Nicholson compliments the character perfectly.
The movie itself is exceptional, though younger audiences expecting more bloodshed, action and tension should look elsewhere. Chinatown is definitely old school, in that it relies more on set up and subtle complexity to carry the story. Chinatown is exciting, but it's not edge-of-your-seat exciting and is never meant to be. I remember watching this movie when I was younger and thinking, "Good but nothing special," but now that I am older and have watched thousands of films, I respect Chinatown a whole lot more. An entire, eerie world is created in a two hour span, and it is capped off by one of the most memorable final scenes in the history of film. That being said, it is an ending that most younger audiences (I remember thinking this when I watched it the first time) will not find very fulfilling at all.
As one might expect from a collector's edition of a movie that was made 35 years ago, the Chinawtown Collector's Edition isn't worth buying if you have already invested in the picture. The DVD does boast four featurettes and the trailer, but other than that, just the movie itself. If you don't own Chinatown it's certainly worth the purchase, as the featurettes definitely go into some depth and are quite insightful (and even include interviews with Nicholson himself, which I found a bit surprising). Still, if you already own it on DVD, is it really worth buying just to see a few interviews?
Chinatown is a brilliantly conceived film. It may be too slow or subtle for some audiences nowadays, but it still holds up amazingly well. The new DVD is good but nothing exceptional, however.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.