Remember how Steven Soderbergh’s first Magic Mike (2012) film was a relatively small scale look at a bunch of men trying to get by in tough economic times? Probably not: those men made a living by stripping, and there’s something about a pack of ripped, half-naked men gyrating about that tends to pull an audience’s attention away from pretty much everything else.
The Soderberg-less sequel Magic Mike XXL (2015) steered hard into that and was a lot of silly, joyful fun. Now ‘Magic’ Mike Lane (Channing Tatum) is back with Soderbergh again directing – only this time Mike’s on his own in Miami, burdened by debt, and trying to make ends meet as a bartender. So we’re back to the themes of the original? Not for long.
When a former client recognises him behind the bar at a function for downbeat divorcee Maxandra Mendoza (Salma Hayek), words gets out about Mike’s former life, and soon Max is looking for a little magic to take her mind off her current plight. Next thing you know, she’s taken him to London to (re-)direct a theatre production she feels could use some spicing up.
The previous Magic Mike films were about a group of men happy to put the spotlight firmly and unapologetically on female pleasure. Mike hasn’t changed; he’s just narrowed his focus. But what happens when he gets involved with someone who (seemingly) wants him for something besides his body?
This is Soderbergh in a minor key, more interested in letting his characters be themselves than pushing them through some high-stakes plot. There are a few fairly predictable twists – uh oh, Max’s wealthy husband is using his clout to stifle her dreams – but as always in the Magic Mike universe, there are few problems that can’t be solved by half-naked men thrusting their groins at it.
Mike’s big sexy number comes early on during his first meeting with Max, as if to get it out of the way. If you’re here for Channing Tatum grinding and undulating, this is the film’s high point (it’s more sexual than actual on-screen sex would have been). The relationship that follows between them feels authentically messy, despite her wealth and his dream gig. You can see him occasionally chafing against the restrictions she puts on him at work: he knows what he’s doing, but she’s the money.
This film’s small scale and rough edges are as much a strength as a weakness. Much of the time it’s about a messy but gentle relationship between two adults where the drama is mostly just waiting to see if Max will get out of her own head long enough to see what’s right in front of her (taking off his shirt). As such this has its charms, especially when Max’s butler Victor (Ayub Khan-Din) provides some much-needed snark.
Let’s put on a show
Otherwise it’s a fairly straightforward and not overly inspired addition to the ‘let’s put on a show’ genre. The new dancers barely get names, let alone dialogue (the previous supporting cast are reduced to a single appearance via zoom), while their big performance at the climax is both physically impressive and almost disappointingly down-to-earth.
Magic Mike XXL ended with a series of stand-alone performances from the cast that might as well have been from a strip version of a Marvel movie, they were so (brilliantly) removed from reality. Here we just get a lot of very good dancers doing a series of well-crafted routines that vary from gymnastic to somewhat sexy.
Dance movies have fallen firmly from favour since the days of the classic Step Up series (basically the Fast & Furious of dance movies). Magic Mike’s Last Dance, which was originally set to go direct-to-streaming, probably isn’t going to bring them back. What made the genre work was going big and not being afraid to be silly if it made audiences feel good; this is more intimate, a private dance from a skilled professional who’s still invested in the moves.
Still, while it may not be a perfect showcase for Mike – or Tatum, whose endearing charm and understated comedic skills are easily as impressive as his moves – it’s always a pleasure to be welcoming him back to the centre stage.
Magic Mike’s Last Dance is in cinemas now.