It’s been a long time since I’ve felt as blessed to be witnessing something that catered so directly to my tastes in a mainstream film as I did during the last act of Magic Mike XXL. For a film made by a bunch of men that spends a good portion of itself calming the straight men in the audience between playful dance scenes by presenting as a “bro road trip” flick, it’s surprising how much more interested this sequel is in offering up thrills for audience members attracted to the men involved. When you least expect it, you’ve descended down a delicious rabbit hole of eccentric character intros and outros that come to fruition in a cornucopia of men dancing, singing, and thrusting on stage together for the fun of it.
Magic Mike XXL sees the characters of the former film taking a road trip to a stripper convention together for one last ride and to have a good time. It’s a smart enough string to tie things together, but it’s not something that actually matters. It results in scenes where the gang just shoots the shit, with a surprisingly realistic feel to it all, so much so that it’s hard to figure out who to attribute credit to: Gregory Jacobs and Steven Soderbergh in the vérité feel they give it, Reid Carolin in his scripting of pointless conversations, or the actors in potentially improvising the dialogue. But their aesthetic value doesn’t diminish the fact that they’re ultimately solely in the film to connect the important stuff and provide a safe space for, again, the same kind of folks who made the movie. In fact, one could practically walk out of the theater for bathroom breaks at any point where the men aren’t dancing or stripping and not much would be missed.1
The few bits that do offer more than the bro road trip conceit are those involving the film’s most interesting woman: Rome. XXL is a film that’s lucky to have the talented Jada Pinkett Smith around; though, in fairness, anything with her is lucky to have her. She commands the audience just as she commands the women on screen who attend Rome’s subscription-based strip mansion, referring to them all as queens and giving them exactly what they want. Pinkett Smith’s presence is everything, and it’s what makes her one of the best emcees on film, shifting control from herself to anything she – and clearly the filmmakers – want the audience to be staring at.
What Jacobs and Reid do have a better grasp on than Soderbergh did last time around is maintaining a sense of playfulness through and through. There’s less heft to every plot point for the sake of keeping the levity high, and it shows in each and every dance scene, be it for the leads or minor players. Tatum laughs at himself as Ginuwine’s “Pony” plays in his tool room and he dances, Manganiello finds himself while stripping to Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way” all to make a gas station clerk laugh, and the boys all hop on stage with a drag queen to have a good time.
Adding to that delightfulness is the way Soderbergh – under his usual DP pseudonym Peter Andrews – shoots things this time around. Unlike with Magic Mike, it almost feels like the camera in XXL has adapted the male gaze to focus on male bodies a bit more. Things are composed to expose rippling muscles while still placing an emphasis on the women within the frame finding pleasure in said partial nudity. This isn’t to say that sometimes the camera takes note of the wrong thing – see: Channing Tatum and That Girl for the entirety of his final segment rather than the equally talented dancer alongside him – but, boy, is it satisfying when it gets just the right shots.
Walking into Magic Mike XXL, you essentially know what you’re paying for. But is that ticket price worth it? Well, I can gleefully say I’ve never felt as aroused in a movie without full-frontal as I did when I saw Joe Manganiello’s entire final dance sequence, which taps into my ridiculous fantasies of martial commitment and hardcore sex all too smartly.
1I must admit, I did exactly this in one scene and feel like I missed next to nothing.
Directed by Gregory Jacobs; written by Reid Carolin; starring Channing Tatum, Joe Manganiello, Jada Pinkett Smith, Elizabeth Banks, Matt Bomer, Adam Rodriguez, Kevin Nash, Gabriel Iglesias, and Donald Glover; 115 minutes.
Magic Mike XXL is now playing in theaters everywhere.