Ten years ago, my friend Alicia and I walked into the Cinemark at Citiplace in Baton Rouge with a lot of excited middle-aged women to see Magic Mike, the then-new film directed by beloved (by us anyway) BR film icon Steven Soderbergh. Magic Mike had largely been marketed as an upbeat romcom about a hot dude raising money to start his own business by working as a male stripper. In the trailer, which starts out pretending that the film is about Channing Tatum as a cop before revealing his true profession, there’s a very 2012 needle-drop of Rihanna’s “We Found Love” and some romantic tension with romantic lead Cody Horn that would lead you to assume that you’re in for a much different kind of film than the one that hit theaters lo these many years ago. The advertising focused on star power — not so much of Tatum himself but of his taut body and the promise of a tantalizing thrill ride that still featured a traditional “Guy wants more from life, girl wants him but doesn’t know if she can handle his past” plot structure. You know, like a Nicholas Sparks adaptation but with a lot more dry humping.
That wasn’t the movie that we got that day. Instead, Magic Mike was kind of Diet Cola Boogie Nights, which is strange considering that we already had 54. The 2012 movie is one that spends most of its first half focused on Alex Pettyfer’s newcomer character and his introduction to the world of male stripping, and his narratively inevitable fall into the sex/drugs/rock’n’roll dark side of that lifestyle, while Tatum’s Mike is very focused on finding a way to grind—pun intended—-at whatever comes his way until he manages to rise above his current economic class. There are plenty of sexy dances, but they’re shot with a bit of a remove, and so what we’re left with is a tonal mishmash of cheesy rom-com dialogue, writhing torsos, and a storyline about drugs that doesn’t moralize further than “Some people can handle them better than others.” I can’t speak for everyone, but I can say that it wasn’t what I was expecting or what I wanted, and that the deluge of Baton Rouge moms who walked out of that screening also seemed to think that something different was supposed to have happened in that multiplex that day.
Brandon is a big fan of the first follow-up, Magic Mike XXL, which eschews the first film’s director and direction, subbing in Gregory Jacobs for Soderbergh and, as Brandon wrote, “ditching its predecessor’s despondent character study in favor of an aging-boy-band-goes-on-a-road-trip slapstick comedy.” I understand the appeal, and I don’t think it was a bad idea to make a sequel that followed through on the unfulfilled promise of the first film’s marketing and also give it a lighter, fluffier narrative, and I find Donald Glover to be a welcome addition in anything that I’m watching, but it still didn’t connect with me. The first film purposely contrasted the dour realities of living under a broken economic system and the ways that people learn to cope inside of them with the larger-than-life stagebound fantasies that the boys got to portray. In XXL, the plot gets tiny little conflict injections as infrequently as narrative requirements allow while mostly taking the form of a goofy picaresque that mostly existed to hang strip sequences upon, and while I certainly understand the appeal, I just don’t connect.
There was a moment in the screening of Magic Mike’s Last Dance when I turned to my friend who had accompanied me and asked: “How is this the best one?” And it’s not just better than the others (in my opinion), it’s actually great.
This time around, we’ve got a narrator, and for reasons that don’t come into focus until the end of the first act, she’s young and has a British accent, and she’s telling the story of our old friend Mike Lane to catch us up on what’s happened in the intervening years. Mike’s furniture store folded during COVID, and he broke up with the woman he was presumed to have a happy ending with at the conclusion of XXL. Now he’s back to doing gig catering work, and he still hasn’t managed to claw his way out of his economic situation. While bartending at a charity event hosted by Maxandra “Max” Mendoza (Salma Hayek), who is recently separated from her media empire heir husband due to his infidelity, Mike is recognized by one of Max’s lawyers, who also happened to be one of the sorority girls from the party in the first film. To cheer up her boss, she recommends that Max invite Mike to give her a private dance, which he does after very little convincing. When the two wake up together the next morning, Max offers Mike a mysterious job, but he has to fly with her to London immediately. Once there, he meets her daughter—and our narrator—Zadie (Jemelia George) and their butler Victor (Ayub Khan Din), neither of whom approve of what Max is up to or, by extension, Mike’s presence.
Max tasks Mike with a challenge: she owns a theater that was in her husband’s family for generations, and she’ll give him $60,000 for one month’s work of “redeveloping” the play that is currently being performed there. It’s a dreary-looking love triangle Victorian-era period piece called Isabel Ascendant that is considered old-fashioned and misogynistic even in-universe, and Max wants Mike to use his supposed knowledge of how to give women what they want to turn the play into an erotic, hip-thrusting masterpiece. This means firing the play’s director and, as a quirk of actors’ union labor laws, keeping on the actress playing the titular Isabel, Hannah (Juliette Motamed), who turns out to be as free of spirit as Isabel was repressed. With only three weeks until the curtain rises, Max and Mike have to recruit sexy dancers from all over Europe to fill out the ensemble while also dodging the various obstacles thrown in their way by Max’s soon-to-be-ex-husband.
When I texted Brandon about doing coverage for this movie after I walked out of the theater, I was shocked to learn from him that it has such mixed reviews, but I think I have to chalk that up to … let’s politely call it “demographics.” Magic Mike wasn’t what it purported to be, sure, but it also wasn’t much of a fantasy either. Cody Horn is a gorgeous woman, but she’s not one with whom the presumed target audience of this kind of movie can readily identify. She’s hot, she looks great in her bikini, and she’s effortlessly cool. The same could be said of Amber Heard in XXL, and in neither movie is there ever any doubt about how the film will end and thus there are no stakes in those relationships, rendering them flat. Salma Hayek is also a gorgeous woman, and although she doesn’t look it, she’s 56, a full 14 years older than Tatum, and here she’s playing a woman with an ungodly amount of capital. I’m sure it’s not very common for someone’s wildest dreams to be about their partner cheating with their assistant, but there’s a lot to be said for the power fantasy of being a powerful older woman who can hire a maturing stud to create the ultimate sexy stage experience. Last Dance understands that better than the other two, and even though we know that the show will eventually have to go on, even if Max is rolling around in her overstuffed down comforters in a state of depression because it seems like her ex-husband has “won.” It’s called “Magic Mike’s Last Dance.” We know there’s going to be a big sexy revue at the end (and boy howdy is there).
There’s a lot to really enjoy here. No one is more surprised than I am at how much I was won over by the ongoing subplot of Zadie and Victor. It would be so easy that it would almost be cheating to have Victor secretly be in love with his employer like something out of a Merchant-Ivory production, but there’s none of that nonsense here. I normally find precocious children to be grating and cloying in these movies, but it’s actually rather fun to watch Zadie have to occasionally step up and parent her mother as she goes through hard times, and for Victor to act in an unofficial grandfatherly capacity to get her back up to snuff. It’s not the stuff of Man Booker prizes—Zadie gets her mother out of the house and to the theatre for the finale of the film by finally addressing her as “Mum” instead of using her first name, which is a device that’s older than the hills—but it’s engaging in a way that I wasn’t really expecting for the third trip to this particular well. Hannah’s emceeing of the event is a hell of a lot of fun, and Motamed is a magnetic presence who leaves an impression on the viewer, standing out in a parade of male flesh that could easily wash her out of the mind completely, but she remains firmly rooted.
In another way of fulfilling the fantasy, we the audience get to sit in on and attend the auditions for the revamped Isabel Ascendant and see all of the dancers get selected for their various individual talents: breakdancing, contortion, modern dance, ballet, and, of course, good ol’ fashioned stripping. It’s a fun montage, but also because it’s a montage, we never have to learn any names or have to try and keep track of them and their individual narratives as we were expected to in the previous films. As Peter, Bjorn, and John sang so long ago, “Flesh is flesh,” and that’s all that there is to it. All we need to worry about is having a good time, and although I’m sure that theatre reeked just as much of creatine farts as the back of the van in XXL, there’s something very classy and fun about it. As promised, the film does end with Magic Mike’s last dance, and it’s truly stunning, a demonstration that as much as mainstream critics like to tease Tatum, he is an amazing dancer who’s lithe and fluid in a way that belies his athletic build and his himbo public persona. The stakes are never too high or too low in the narrative, and the film rides that sweet spot for all that it’s worth, ensuring that this series goes out on a high note.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond
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