As did most people, I thought MAGIC MIKE was not just great as pure entertainment, but it was honest about its depiction of some of the seedier elements connected with the world of male stripping/exotic dancing. From the drugs to the exchange of money for sexual favors to the way the world sucks in young men looking for a quick shot of cash and attention from women (or men, let’s be fair). Both the good and bad sides of the coin were pulled from the life of the film’s star, Channing Tatum, who spent his barely legal years as a stripper. But he was lucky: he got out early and became one of the best dancers the big screen has right now as a result of the training he received getting in a guy-string for tips. As directed by Steven Soderbergh (his second to last feature film) and scripted by Tatum’s pal Reid Carolin, MAGIC MIKE became this generations SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER by blending the down and dirty with the often-hilarious and skillfully executed dance routines.
MAGIC MIKE XXL (also written by Carolin) is a lesser and very different animals in terms of its focus, but it still opens our eyes a bit wider to the world of male entertainment, while wowing us with its sexually charged choreography and overall bro camaraderie, moving the setting from a single club to an RV road trip, fueled entirely by testosterone and protein shakes.
As you might remember from the last film, Mike left the business to start his own custom-furniture business, which he’s still doing three years later with some degree of success (although the fact that he isn’t making enough to get his one employee health insurance haunts him). He’s on the verge of blowing up and maybe even opening up a new location, but the amount of work he’s putting into the business isn’t leaving much time for his lady, Brooke, who isn’t actually seen in the film—she’s only talked about as a figure missing from Mike’s life (we miss you Cody Horn).
More significantly missed is Matthew McConaughey as Dallas, who has apparently split Tampa and his nightclub, leaving Mike’s old dancing buddies high and dry for work. Not really qualified to do anything else and lacking Mike’s ambition to get out of the business, Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiell), Tarzan (Kevin Nash), Ken (Matt Bomer), and Tito (Adam Rodriguez) contact Mike and propose a quick road trip up the East Coast from Tampa to Myrtle Beach to a big male stripper convention, where they stand to get national exposure and recognition.
Like all great odysseys, MAGIC MIKE XXL is about the journey not the destination—although the destination is pretty damn great too—and the boys have all manner of wild adventures along the way—from a Jacksonville club that seems to cater mostly to gay men and transvestites (it’s not exactly spelled out, but that appears to be what we’re seeing) to a side trip to Savannah, where Mike seeks the help and emcee skills of former employer Rome (a quite lively and swagger-laden Jada Pinkett Smith).
More of an atmospheric, erotic house party than strip club, Rome’s place looks like a sex club with no sex, only men dancing for ladies and treating them like royalty. The vibe is quite different than Dallas’ free-for-all hump festival. The dancers (including one played by Michael Strahan, which is just odd) are more like sweaty massage chairs than bump-and-grind experts. Also on hand is the 95-lb. Donald Glover as a singing stripper, who lack in pectoral muscles, but makes up for it with confidence and a sultry voice.
The issue with Rome’s venue is that it doesn’t feel like a real place. The lighting, the staged path that Mike and his crew make their way from room to room, the way Mike has to re-audition for Rome to show he still cares about her and has still got his moves, it all feels artificial and set up for the film, rather than the customers. There are maybe a few too many moments like this, not enough to ruin the film but just enough to take you out of it in a distracting way. But if you’ve made it this far in this review already, I’m guessing you’ll find on-screen distractions in other, more appropriate places. But it’s a double-edged sword because the most staged moments are also wildly entertaining. When Richie does a ridiculous sexy dance for a female gas-station convenience store clerk while he’s hopped up on molly, it’s a show stopper, but it’s also about as authentic as an episode of “Glee.”
Once again, Mike gets a would-be love interest to flirt with relentlessly in the form of photographer Zoe (Amber Heard), and while she’s a fairly unmemorable character, one of my favorite sequences occurs when Mike and the boys drop by her home and meet her mother (a wonderfully raunchy Andie MacDowell) and her similarly aged cocktail lady friends, all of whom swoon over and circle these younger men like they were hyenas ready to pounce on fresh man meat. And most importantly, the scene works because it feels real…real sleazy. There is a bit of the old MAGIC MIKE in XXL to be sure. But I also liked that this is a sequel that gets its most fully electric moments when the men and teasing and pleasing the ladies. The men aren’t sexually aggressive, but they are certainly accommodating; it borders on charming.
As the film’s big conclusion proves beyond any doubt, this one is aimed at having fun. Whereas some people complained that the original was too dark in places, MAGIC MIKE XXL makes the profession of male stripping look like it’s a blast on both sides of the lapdance. The final epic performance is so well choreographed, lit and art directed, it reminded me a great deal of the finale of PITCH PERFECT 2 (the fact that Elizabeth Banks shows up briefly in this segment really drives home that point). There’s no denying the craftsmanship of the final dance numbers, with each member of the crew getting a chance to shine and expressing their inner desires in a way they never would have been allowed to working for Dallas.
A great deal of the film is just about hanging with the guys in the RV (or whatever vehicle they get their hands on when that stops working for them), but some of those moments seem truly unfocused, as if the camera was left on accidentally, and the guys are just shooting the shit but not really listening to each other. I happen to love unscripted bullshitting in any movie as a means to develop the characters and catch them off guard and natural. But just as often in MAGIC MIKE XXL, the guys (outside of Tatum, who at least has some improv chops from the JUMP STREET films) don’t have much to say, and I bet guys that have their jobs have a lot to talk about.
MAGIC MIKE XXL is directed by Gregory Jacobs, Soderbergh’s constant first assistant director for more than 20 years, so the look and feel of the film should feel familiar to fans of the stylistic choices of the first film. Add to that that, the technically “retired” Soderbergh is the cinematographer and editor on this film, so you can rest easy knowing that this sequel in in capable hands. My issues with the movie are less about aesthetics and more about Tatum and screenwriter Carolin pulling back rather than digging in deeper into the lives of these objectified men, clearly suffering for their art (I’m kidding). This is basically a party and dance film, with a few key revelations thrown in like scraps to remind us what once was. The work is still solid and undeniably entertaining, but feel free to lower your expectations slightly if you admired the original movie for its insight as well as its sight lines.