Three years, a man, a plan, and a thong proved what Hollywood studios executives refused to acknowledge, let alone consciously consider: Women not only frequent mainstream, four-quadrant films, so-called “chick flicks,” but films that openly objectified, fetishized, and commodified the male form, specifically the idealized form represented by the hypertrophied, hairless “gym body.” An unlikely commercial hit was born, thanks to Steven Soderbergh’s crisply efficient, form-elevating direction, Reid Carolin’s thematically topical screenplay, and another charismatic turn from Channing Tatum (along with, of course, a visually-appealing supporting cast). With the budget-to-return ratio accounting dreams are made of, a sequel wasn’t just likely, it was inevitable. But was the three-year wait for Magic Mike XXL, the further adventures and misadventures of the title character’s journey through the male entertainment (i.e., stripper) industry worth the wait? There’s a short answer and a long one (puns definitely not intended), but there’s also a middle answer: It depends.
That “it depends” exists wholly in the minds and libidos of moviegoers wanting and/or expecting yet another detailed glimpse into the trials and tribulations of being a male stripper in the middle of the second decade of the 21st century. When we reconnect with Tatum’s ex-stripper (or “male entertainer” as he and his colleagues prefer), he’s left the industry behind to pursue his American Dream of owning and operating a custom furniture business. As he’s discovered in the three-year interim between the first and second films in a soon-to-be-trilogy, having a dream and living that dream bears little resemblance to each other. He’s struggling financially with just one employee, an employee desperate for health insurance, while his girlfriend, Brooke (Cody Horn), has exited stage left or right. She’s less a narrative victim than a victim of the poor chemistry she shared (or didn’t share) with Mike/Tatum, but the two events, a struggling business and a failed romantic relationship are all Mike needs to reconsider the life he left behind.
Opportunity doesn’t so much knock as leave a voicemail message summoning Mike to the faux-wake of a former comrade-in-thongs, leading inevitably to Mike agreeing to join one-time Kings of Tampa (Florida), Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello), Ken (Matt Bomer), Tito (Adam Rodriguez), and Tarzan (Kevin Nash), sans Dallas (Lincoln car spokesman Matthew McConaughey) and Adam (Alex Pettyfer), Brooke’s temperamental brother, for one last ride or rather “One Last Ride” before the former Kings of Tampa, most pushing 40, one pushing 60 (Tarzan), retire to a nursing home or a horse farm (or a glue factory). That Last Ride involves the equivalent of one last heroic battle, albeit a battle one through a veritable “tsunami of dollar bills” won at an upcoming stripper convention in Myrtle Beach and not through wounds received or bloodied bodies left on the canvas. Essentially, the Last Ride gives Mike and his boys one last chance to re-bond, air old and new grievances, and otherwise act like college-aged men on spring break via a road trip.
That road trip, complete with stops at a convenience store for an impromptu show (tangential, marginal, unnecessary), a reconnection between Mike and old lover, Rome (Jada Pinkett-Smith), who runs a subscription-based, African-American-centered strip club, and a meet-and-greet with aging Southern Belles, offers little in the way of narrative or character development, though Mike gets a new, obligatory romantic interest in the form of a wannabe photographer, Zoe (Amber Heard), and Richie something along the same lines, except it purely physical. Magic Mike XXL purposely tries to widen its demographic appeal by adding a rapper-stripper, Andre (Donald Glover), and Malik (So You Think You Can Dance star Stephen “tWitch” Boss). A stop lands Mike and his crew at a gay nightclub, a brief nods in the direction of Magic Mike XXL’s second-most important (or possibly the first-most important) demographic audience-wise, but Magic Mike XXL has other things on its mind, all of them superficial (i.e., the stripper convention).
A rambling, loose narrative presumably focused on character and character development (albeit shallow, superficial characters) isn’t exactly a cinematic sin, but the decision, however well-intentioned, to give each character their own solo note stretches Magic Mike XXL close to the two-hour mark (a sin it and of itself), but also highlights their individual deficiencies as performers (Tatum and Boss excepted, of course), deficiencies Soderbergh deftly hid the first time out through the magic of cinematography and editing. Here, Soderbergh’s longtime collaborator-turned-director Gregory Jacobs repeatedly trips himself up trying to work around the non-dancers in the cast. For fans of the first Magic Mike already predisposed to the cast and their respective roles as male entertainers, Jacobs’ workarounds aren’t likely to be noticed and if they are, they’re just as likely to be ignored.