Getting rich making movies shares a few things in common with stripping. Skin sells; lighting is key; and never, ever turn down the chance for an encore. Three years and tens of thousands of crunches later, Channing Tatum and his merry band of Adoni are back to gyrate, grind, and generally excite the pants off of you once again in Magic Mike XXL. Yes, the Cock Rocking Kings of Tampa have returned, rested and ready to outdo their last performance. That they almost manage to do so makes XXL nearly as big a success story as the original Magic Mike.
Who exactly was demanding another Magic Mike makes for another matter entirely. Advertising has played up the return of Tatum’s charming and talented male entertainer like it’s to be the second coming. But many who saw the first film were left unsatisfied that the male stripper comedy they thought they’d paid for was actually a Steven Soderbergh male stripper comedy. It’s not as though Magic Mike didn’t have a sense of humor about its titillating subject matter – Soderbergh just happened to think that perfect male specimens struggling to survive and dream outside their exhibitionist moonlighting was much funnier and more interesting than a thong-filled farce.
That the original also body-rolled itself into a corner, ending with Mike Lane happily retiring the “Magic” moniker and putting his nightlife to bed, makes the need for a second round even more questionable. It’s a problem not so much solved by returning screenwriter Reid Carolin as it is casually dismissed – any movie that can extend a $7 million budget into a $160 million worldwide take won’t let narrative get in the way of a sequel.
Soderbergh, who “only” lenses, edits, and camera operates for Magic Mike XXL, proves more committed to staying out of the director’s chair than Mike is at staying off the stripper pole. New director and longtime Soderbergh AD Gregory Jacobs is thusly given the opportunity to create the six-pack spectacle that many wanted from Magic Mike in the first place.
The good news: he does. The better news: Jacobs accomplishes this on his own terms, while preserving the Soderbergh look and feel that made Magic Mike as singular as its protagonist. Slightly angled framing, two-person conversations that isolate individuals, jaundiced filters – all totally Soderbergh, and all carried over from Magic Mike. And while most of the impressive moves in Magic Mike XXL belong to someone else’s choreography, Jacobs makes the franchise’s flashier new direction distinct. The result is a more familiar act overall, but one that can still deliver the goods all the same.
There’s no shortage of growing pains to be found in XXL, and its disbelief at its own existence makes for the most self-aware movie Tatum’s been in since 22 Jump Street. Cast triage has seen Alex Pettyfer, Cody Horn, and Matthew McConaughey exit the picture, though they’re hardly missed. (Matt Bomer, as the gang’s spiritualist pretty boy, Ken, inherits McConaughey’s deranged energy. Someone else gets to say “alright, alright, alright”). The first film picked up with the Kings of Tampa well into their prime, and the sequel sees our scantily clad brotherhood facing the end of their glory days the only way they know how: road trip!
Frustrated with the straight life and freshly heartbroken, Mike decides to get back on the pony one last time, hitching a ride with his former Kingsmen when they head to Myrtle Beach for a stripping convention that will be their final hurrah. Knowing that the “tsunami of dollar bills” the guys could earn will carry them through their post-stripping careers for only so long, there’s a creeping melancholy to Magic Mike XXL’s first hour that’s of a piece with the original. On stage, these guys sparkle like a rhinestone g-string; off, their prospects aren’t nearly so bright.
The second half mostly throws away these darker underpinnings like tearaway pants, and by the end, Magic Mike XXL seems ready to buy into a glamorous artifice the first movie worked to subvert. It’s hard to blame it, though. Magic Mike XXL is more openly whacky and fun than its predecessor, digressive as most road movies are, but never more than a few minutes away from another impressive display of balletic eroticism, a hilarious setpiece, or both.
It’s no overstatement to say that Magic Mike XXL is “The Odyssey” of stripper road trip comedies. Mike and the boys journey visually from East to West, encountering a variety of obstacles that can only be dealt with using the special skills they possess. Along the way, they run into Jada Pinkett Smith, who has a fabulous turn as a hype-woman that carries herself like P.T. Barnum in a pork pie hat and heels. Andie MacDowell also shows up as a divorcee more than happy to corral some studs into her home, leading to another lengthy, outrageous, and quietly insightful sidebar.
The finale, a 15-minute revue that gives every character their chance to shine, is a constantly escalating, certainly excessive climax, one that proves that the real magic of Magic Mike hasn’t been lost. These men and the women they entertain are shameless. That, not their physiques, is what you’re meant to envy. “We’re healers,” Ken remarks at one point. “We can be healers,” Donald Glover’s dulcet Andre corrects. The double edge that comes with the power of these cut bodies never materializes, but the fantasy of a happier existence Magic Mike XXL imagines for its characters is one worth indulging. After all, they’ve indulged so many of ours; it seems only fair to return the favor.
Magic Mike XXL is a softer, sweeter treat than its predecessor, but there's still no mistaking the skill applied to this prime cut meat parade.