The latest Magic Mike sequel is ‘tepid,’ argues Caryn James, despite Channing Tatum’s magnetism and a few sparks of comedy in the writing.
Channing Tatum made his character in Magic Mike over a decade ago the most joyous, wholesome stripper on the planet. That not-so-secret purpose is stated in a television commercial for the forthcoming sequel, Magic Mike’s Last Dance, with the statement “Take the guilt out of enjoyment.” Leaving aside the confusing question of who feels guilty about what, Tatum and Soderbergh’s method stripped the sleaze out of stripping and injected a take-it-or-leave-it undercurrent of social mobility.
Many commentators analysed Mike’s intention to utilise his stripper money to build his own custom furniture business, while audiences – both men and women – were free to gawk at the spectacle of hunky gentlemen stripping naked in glossy, acrobatically choreographed acts. Drug deals had consequences, but sex was a liberating experience with no suggestion of exploitation in the clubs where Mike danced.
After Magic Mike XXL (2015), Last Dance takes place in a new world where Tatum is a major star and the character is a marketable product with Magic Mike Live stage plays in Las Vegas and London. The underwhelming new film has the sense of a product. It loses its joy and leans towards the plot, which has never been the franchise’s strong suit, with an impossible romance and a half-baked message of female empowerment. The dances are primarily disjointed scenes of males breakingdancing or leaping through the air before ripping their shirts off. However, no thongs are permitted. These good-natured strippers kept their pants on.
The plot had to drag Mike down so he could climb back up the ladder. Now that the epidemic has forced his furniture business to fail, he’s bartending in Miami when he meets Maxandra, a wealthy soon-to-be-divorced woman (Salma Hayek Pinault). Misinformed about his current occupation, she persuades him to perform an innocent lap dance with no sex involved. What follows is a breathtaking, choreographed set piece, a montage of Mike writhing and grinding, Maxandra on the floor, on a table, hoisted against the window, sex without actual sex. Sultry is an old-fashioned word for it, but you can just call it hot.
But, after that heightened eroticism, the film descends precipitously. Maxandra whisks Mike away on her private jet to London with a business proposal and a plan for a theatre she owns: replace a stuffy 19th-century drawing-room drama called Isabel Ascendant with a one-night-only theatrical extravaganza. Mike will be in charge of the male dancers. This results in a let’s-put-on-a-show seriousness that contradicts with the film’s occasionally winking tone and double entendres.
Tatum has made a point of giving women a voice in the new picture. And it’s an interesting flip of gender norms because Maxandra has money and power. It’s a bad Hayek Pinault didn’t get a role, complete with a slew of feminist pronouncements. Maxandra says several times – in case we missed it? – that Mike’s lap dance reminded her of who she is. And she asks why Isabel in the play is forced to choose between a loveless marriage for financial gain and being a social outcast. Why can’t a woman be liberated? Those are fantastic concepts to live by, but they make terrible movie dialogue. And, despite the fact that the script implies a bond between Maxandra and Mike, there is no chemistry between the performers beyond the first dance.
Tatum is as charming as ever, and the writing offers him a few witty moments. He tells the dancers during rehearsal to brace themselves for “a zombie apocalypse of repressed yearning” from the audience. But the silliness that was part of Mike’s appeal is no longer there.
Magic Mike XXL relied on the original’s appeal, although with a different director. However, Soderbergh returns to film Last Dance alongside Reid Carolin, who penned all three installments. His customary clean style and quickness only appear on rare occasions here. A montage of dancers auditioning is intercut with pictures of Maxandra and Mike scouting street performers and appearing like they’re in some clichéd London travel show.