Magic Mike XXL comes up a little short compared with the original, director Steven Soderbergh’s blithe and bonny Channing Tatum showcase inspired by Tatum’s salad days as a male stripper. This time the jokes are heavier, more on-the-nose, though a surprising percentage of them work anyway.
And yet the sequel earns its singles, reasons that are simple and quite unusual. Feel free to quit reading the review here, because why lie? You’ve already determined whether you’re going to see this thong (sorry, thing) or not based on its promise of even more stripper routines. The promise is fulfilled, for the record.
Most sequels—most commercial films, period—rely on overt conflict and ginned-up crises to push the story forward. Magic Mike XXL goes the other way. It strips down to its narrative skivvies and says, in effect: Let’s not kid ourselves. You’re not here, with your wad of singles in hand, to see a movie about the dark night of Magic Mike’s soul. The script by Reid Carolin is hilariously casual in its plotting. It’s an amiably ramshackle road-trip movie, with the guys reuniting because it feels so good and because there’s a male stripper convention in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
The sequel is directed by Soderbergh’s longtime assistant director and collaborator, Gregory Jacobs. It retains the original’s sunny, democratic vibe and refreshing lack of meanness, as well as Soderbergh’s interest (if not his precision) in keeping several of the ensemble members in frame, interacting, without a lot of routine close-ups. The temperament of the Magic Mike movies is sweet, even with all the carefully choreographed salaciousness.
Has Tatum grown into a better actor than he was three years and 11 films ago? Certainly, he has become a star; certainly, audiences enjoy the guy, and Foxcatcher proved he could learn from first-rate talents, even as he still struggles to make anything look effortless. Magic Mike XXL tweaks Tatum’s newfound respectability. Mike runs his own furniture-making business, and he’s at his workbench one evening, and his old stripper theme “Pony” comes on Spotify or whatever. And suddenly he’s doing the patented Tatum moves, and he likes it! Hey, Mikey!
The Kings of Tampa alums include BDR (Joe Manganiello); aspiring actor Ken (Matt Bomer); Tarzan (Kevin Nash, looking like an amalgam of every aging heavy-metal band veteran currently touring); Tito (Adam Rodriguez); and Tobias, the emcee (Gabriel Iglesias). The trip to Myrtle Beach includes stops in Jacksonville, Florida, for a drag routine at a gay bar, and Savannah, Georgia, where Rome, an old flame of Mike’s (Jada Pinkett Smith), now runs a strip club inside a converted Southern mansion resembling Eyes Wide Shut but funsy. An accident sidelines Tobias, so the gang needs a new emcee. Will Rome do it, in not much more than a day? She will, and she’ll bring her best employees along, played by Donald Glover, Michael Strahan and Stephen “tWitch” Boss.
Like everything else in Magic Mike XXL, Tatum’s nominal love interest, a New York-bound photographer played by the supremely blasé Amber Heard, comes with a take-me-or-leave-me air that’s sort of winning. Andie MacDowell, whose career was made by Soderbergh’s sex, lies and videotape a generation ago, pops up as a sexually bereft divorcee whose outlook improves once Mike and the boys are invited in for drinks. You know where this scene is headed every second, yet even this hokey wish-fulfillment works. My favorite shot in Magic Mike XXL is that of Manganiello backstage, about to compete, a little freaked out by a rival stripper’s homage to Twilight. No twilight for this crew. And, against the odds, no shame for this particular sequel.
Magic Mike XXL (R): ★★★ ✩ ✩