Back in 2012, the male stripper movie “Magic Mike” came as a pleasant surprise. Directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring Channing Tatum as the titular Mike the picture turned out to be a silly, endearing character study about Mike’s desire to leave the stripping game and open his own furniture business. As ridiculous as it may sound, Soderbergh and Tatum humanized a male stripper and did so with the right balance of comedy and drama. It may not have been the most profound movie ever made but the characters felt authentic; the central relationships, between Mike and rising stripper Adam (Alex Pettyfer) and veteran stripper Dallas (Matthew McConaughey) were strong and vibrant.
The sequel, “Magic Mike XXL” is another pleasant surprise but for different reasons. The ending of the original didn’t exactly scream “sequel,” or at least a sequel that involves more stripping. To get around this, new director Gregory Jacobs—Soderbergh stays on as the DP under the pseudonym Peter Andrews—and screenwriter Reid Carolin acknowledge the original film’s existence while at the same time ignoring it.
At the beginning, we see that Mike has successfully opened his furniture company. However, before long Mike is back to the dance floor. While working in his shop one night the moves seem to bubble up directly from his subconscious. He tries to fight them, but they eventually possess him. So he decides to join his old stripping buddies, Richie (Joe Manganiello) Tarzan, (Kevin Nash) Ken (Matt Bomer) and Tito (Adam Rodriguez) on the road for one last striptease at a stripper convention.
That’s it as far as set up is concerned, and it’s done all within the first five to ten minutes. Jacobs and Carolin avoid lengthy, boring story exposition and jump right to the point. After all, we’re here to see the pretty boys dance, not worry about what came before. Jacobs and Carolin do have to explain the absence of some significant characters, namely Dallas, Adam and Adam’s sister Brooke (Cody Horn) but even these explanations are handled swiftly and without hassle.
And anyway, the movie gives us enough reason to forget them. “Magic Mike XXL” lacks the depth of “Magic Mike” but it’s a lot of fun—blending silliness with sincerity. It’s aware of how ridiculous its premise is without continually winking at the audience and rarely references the first film. As we’ve seen in a number of recent big budget sequels there’s a tendency to constantly remind the audience of the film that came before it. With “Magic Mike XXL” we’re here to see the pretty boys dance, not worry about what came before.
The plot of “Magic Mike XXL” can best be summed up as: male strippers strip on their way to a stripping convention. That’s it. The stakes are low. Even the most serious hiccups the gang encounters along the way are no big deal. But with strippers this likable and attractive who cares about plot. Jacobs wisely keeps the focus on the core five as they goof around with one another; their bromantic chemistry becomes infectious. They may not be the most fleshed out characters but the bond they share feels true; their friendly ribbings and antics are surprisingly endearing and the movie never once slips into forced sentimentality.
The focus on the core five also means the picture is free of fat (much like our beefy young lads). There’s no forced tension or forced romantic angle. The gang doesn’t have a falling out with melancholy guitar music playing over. At the stripper convention there’s no competition with a rival group. Through the lack of “plot” the movie avoids unnecessary clichés, making for a leaner, funnier, more satisfying film.
Tatum is superb as Mike and it’s a role well suited for him. He gets to flaunt his good looks but beneath those magnificent muscles lies a caring, compassionate, goofy and all around lovable personality. Tatum’s performance here is less of a surprise than it was back then. At the time of the original, Tatum was still trying to find his acting identity. His chiseled, godlike looks couldn’t mask his rather dull onscreen presence. He often starred in action movies like “The Eagle and “GI Joe,” taking himself too seriously. “Magic Mike” allowed him to let loose and embrace his comedic side. Since then he’s turned into a legitimate acting force. Though Mike is still my favorite of his performances; it’s the role where he feels most alive, most energetic. He puts his heart into every crotch grab and hip thrust and a smile can't help but form across my face every time Mike’s in the frame.
The other four are also strong and the absence of Dallas, Adam and Brooke allows them to move into the foreground and be more developed as characters. We learn a little about their interests and yearnings outside of stripping (Tito wants to open a frozen yogurt shop, for example). Like Mike, they don’t want to do this forever but there’s uncertainty about what the next step is. They’ve been adult entertaining for so long that they’ve grown accustomed to it. Would they function in a standard office job?
These are big, intriguing dilemmas the movie doesn’t really explore. Then again, doing so might have bogged the movie down with too much story and caused it to cross into melodramatic territory--ruining its giddy comedic momentum. The boys aren’t on the road to a stripper convention to worry about their future. They’re here for one last chance to strut their stuff before going back to reality. One last chance to be on top of the world together, in front of thousands of screaming excited ladies.
I have little doubt “Magic Mike XXL” will be a success with general audiences, particularly female. The first movie had a slight dramatic kick towards the end—which I think added more dimension to the characters and story—that a lot of people didn’t dig. They wanted stripping and fun times not the harsh, lonely morning after.
“Magic Mike XXL” has no dramatic kick and a lot more stripping and good times. With the amount of singles that accumulate on the floors of various facilities, you could give someone a full ride to an expensive university. At 115 minutes the movie is perhaps too long but just when it begins to wander, a striptease scene or a comedic beat gives the movie a shot of adrenaline and you’re back clapping and giggling with joy.