When I tell people that Magic Mike XXL is one of the best films of the 2010s, I usually get fairly sceptical looks, particularly in New Zealand, where so much of our recent cinema and television culture isn’t so much sexually repressed as it is sexually flatlining. The sequel to Steven Soderbergh’s Channing Tatum-starring male stripper epic hardly screams ‘masterpiece’ from the outset, after all. The original Magic Mike, helmed by Steven Soderbergh (who is no stranger to sexiness with films like Out of Sight and sex, lies and videotape on his CV), had its fair share of swaggering, shirtless, thrusting men, but was bogged down by an artfulness that read as false, as though trying to get the audience to peer around the naked men at something more dense and thematic. Part of that is surely because of Magic Mike himself – a dreamer who has always longed for something to define him more than the fierce stripping talent that he possesses, given effortless charm by Tatum playing a kind of ‘what if’ version of himself. Mike is a male stripper, but he’s also just another working stiff, doing whatever he can to make a buck in a fading America.
In the third, underwhelming instalment of the fascinating and shape-shifting Magic Mike series, original director Steven Soderbergh finds himself adrift in a muddled, well-intentioned romance that never quite ignites.
But then Soderbergh stepped down for the sequel, and in came Gregory Jacobs, a little-known name who hadn’t helmed a film in years (Soderbergh didn’t stray far, credited under a pseudonym as the cinematographer for XXL). Somehow, the result was a modern classic – a glorious road trip saga that was at once an ode to male camaraderie and a sweaty pantheon to the male form, featuring astonishing sequences of dancing prowess combined with gasp-worthy feats of on-stage sexiness. The combination of Tatum with his crew of varied muscle-bound but oh-so-sensitive souls – most notably Joe Manganiello as ‘Big Dick Richie’ – was alchemical, a pure shot of serotonin. The third part of the Mike saga, Magic Mike’s Last Dance, takes another left turn – with Soderbergh in the director’s chair once again, his mind is turned to ageing and, most importantly, romance.
Magic Mike’s Last Dance sees only Tatum returning from the first two films (though a couple of welcome cameos do pop up), finding Mike down-and-out post-pandemic, bartending at a function funded by megarich socialite Max (Salma Hayek). Learning of Mike’s not-so-secret skill, Max requests a dance. This opening sequence is the film’s finest, in which Tatum gyrates around a sophisticated mansion, a spark between Mike and Max quickly blooming into a full-on attraction. Soon, Max is flying Mike to London as part of a plot to prove herself as an entrepreneur and stick it to her wealthy douchebag of an ex-husband. Max, as it turns out, has in the proceedings of the divorce acquired ownership of an ancient theatre that stages repeat showings of a staid and stuffy period piece. Max’ plan? Bring Mike in to do what he does best – much to the chagrin of Max’ family, extremely British butler, and the high society microcosm of theatre-going London.
As that summary might suggest, Mike himself takes something of a backseat in Magic Mike’s Last Dance. Hayek is a fiery presence, and Max is likeable, sexy, and frequently laugh-out-loud funny. The romance between she and Mike is sweet and tender, and Tatum and Hayek enjoy easy chemistry. And yet one can’t help but come away from Magic Mike’s Last Dance feeling slightly let down by the decision to relegate Mike in such a profound way, removing him from his environment of Miami, his group of friends – so warmly and unforgettably established in XXL – and, crucially, much of the sexiness of his work. The London theatre setting is established in such a way that suggests blowing cobwebs off a dusty relic, injecting life into something that has been bloodless for so long. That’s not a bad setup for a male stripper story, but Soderbergh’s intentions as a director are almost counterintuitive to what makes Mike magic, and why XXL is the superior film. Soderbergh is, frankly, too much of an artist for this material – he seems to indulge in the sleazy, the campy, the sensual, almost reluctantly here, and the result at-times risks feeling academic, attempting to conjure something lofty via something that was already profound because of how simply enjoyable it was.
Lamentably, the thing that suffers the most in Soderbergh’s new vision is what most will be buying the ticket for – the stripping. There are fun, titillating moments in Magic Mike’s Last Dance, to be sure, but apart from that sweltering opening and the titular ‘last dance’, which utilises a rain machine to deliver fantastic levels of nudge-nudge-wink-wink eroticism, much of the routines feel tossed-off, an afterthought. The dancers themselves, a troupe entirely composed of newcomers, are barely named, let alone characters in their own right – wherefore art thou, Big Dick Richie? Ironically, a significant moment in the film finds Mike teaching another dancer how to give their routine that extra sizzle – by bonding with the recipient, making a personal connection. It’s a shame the film never allows the same between us and the new dancers.
Soderbergh most tellingly seems to have pinpointed the underlying theme of the Magic Mike series, and has tried his best to maximise it, to a fault – that for all the machismo and swagger, the films are ultimately in conversation with the nature of women’s desire, and how men can respond healthily, meaningfully and sensually to their needs. Soderbergh lays this on thick, and throughout Magic Mike’s Last Dance there are impassioned monologues about ‘what women want’, feminist ideals, and the importance of women taking the lead. This theme bubbled away beneath Magic Mike XXL as well, but it never had to be shouted so loud, or be so exhaustingly didactic, to make its point. The point was made through the joy the viewer felt in the raw spectacle of the male bodies on display. By being so prescriptive, Soderbergh seems to have missed the point, and though Last Dance can be a swoon-worthy joy in and of itself, it’s hard not leave feeling a little short-changed by this happy ending.
Magic Mike’s Last Dance in cinemas now.
Magic Mike’s Last Dance
Movie title: Magic Mike’s Last Dance (Soderbergh, 2023)
Movie description: In the third, underwhelming instalment of the fascinating and shape-shifting Magic Mike series, original director Steven Soderbergh finds himself adrift in a muddled, well-intentioned romance that never quite ignites.
Date published: February 9, 2023
Country: United States
Author: Reid Carolin
Director(s): Steven Soderbergh
Actor(s): Channing Tatum, Salma Hayek,
Genre: Comedy, Drama