When I walked into the original Magic Mike, I expected it to be one big gimmick. However, in addition to the multitude of perfectly sculpted abs and mesmerizing dance routines, it was also a surprisingly grounded, smart, sincere and all-around well-crafted film. Magic Mike XXL, on the other hand, is what I thought we were getting the first time around. It’s one big guilty pleasure that doesn’t even attempt to be anything more.
Since the events of the first film, Mike (Channing Tatum) opted out of performing as a male entertainer and left the Kings of Tampa behind. Three years later, the rest of the group has a case of the stripper business blues, so they decide to participate in a stripper convention to get a little boost. Mike agrees to come out of retirement for the occasion and hits the road with Ken (Matt Bomer), Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello), Tito (Adam Rodriguez) and Tarzan (Kevin Nash) to wow the crowd at Myrtle Beach.
There’s a number of devastating flaws in Magic Mike XXL, but let’s start with the one you might have caught in that synopsis – the guys don’t have much of a purpose. The script briefly mentions why Mike chooses to re-embrace the Kings of Tampa at that moment, but it never clarifies what he’s after long-term. When the film opens, he’s living his dream. He may be having a tough time finding retail space and paying his one employee, but Mike’s got his custom furniture company. Is that something he plans on going back to after the Myrtle Beach trip? It’s never made clear, and when you don’t have a good sense of what your protagonist’s goals are, you don’t know what to root for.
The group as a whole has the same issue. Matthew McConaughey’s Dallas isn’t in the film, but he is somewhat responsible for the their current situation. Turns out, he ditched them for an overseas gig and since then things haven’t been the same. So does that mean this stripper convention is about getting back into the spotlight and finding success without him? Not really. Similar to Mike’s personal goals, the movie never clarifies if Ken, Richie, Tito and Tarzan are looking at the event as one last hurrah or as a way to reinvigorate their stripping careers. Perhaps Magic Mike XXL could have been a successful road trip movie about the Kings of Tampa getting back on top or going out with a bang if the script committed to one or the other, but, as is, it just comes across as a scenario with zero stakes.
It also doesn’t help that all five characters are underdeveloped and aren’t nearly as likable as they were in the first film. The movie attempts to create tension between Mike and Ken over Mike leaving the group, but it doesn’t go very far and Tito’s dream of running a frozen yogurt food truck feels like it was shoehorned in just so that the guys could have an unusual ride and Tito could have an excuse to incorporate whipped cream into his act. After falling for the guys in Magic Mike, I was really excited to get to know them a bit better in XXL. There’s nothing mean-spirited about what they do and the movie does a solid job selling that they genuinely want to make the women they’re dancing for feel special, but during their downtime, they’re just cocky guys who wind up getting what they want because they’re super good-looking.
Donald Glover’s Andre, on the other hand, won me over big time. The Kings of Tampa meet Andre on their way to Myrtle Beach and his thing is that he serenades the ladies with original songs he comes up with on the spot based on their names and a few details about them. He only does it once in the movie, but it’s one of very few dance/strip scenes that’s truly engaging. Whereas most routines feel like they were designed to wow crowds with shock value, the scene with Glover, Tatum’s workshop dance, and a few moments in the finale act excel because there’s something far more raw and personal about them.
As for the rest of the supporting characters, Jada Pinkett Smith’s Rome is probably one of the most memorable of the bunch because she’s got an insane amount of showmanship. I didn’t think any substitute MC could match the work Dallas did in the first film, but Rome manages to come pretty close. On the exact opposite end of the spectrum we’ve got Amber Heard. Zoe’s got no personal arc and her relationship with Mike is a total dead end so there’s really no reason for her to be in this movie at all. And even worse, she’s off-putting. Perhaps there could have been something interesting about a free-spirit who likes to take pictures and can eat an entire red velvet cake by herself, but not when that’s all she does the entire film.
Clearly there are some major story and character issues, but the most devastating flaws are the technical ones. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Magic Mike XXL is one of the most poorly shot and edited movies I’ve seen in a while. Steven Soderbergh didn’t direct the sequel, but he did shoot and edit it, and I don’t know what he was thinking. The large majority of the shot composition is just plain old ugly. There’s also far too many wide shots trying to cram as many main characters in as possible and a whole bunch that are done from this weird security camera-like angle that makes you feel like you’re spying on the characters, not like you’re experiencing the trip with them. There are also countless instances where I found the visuals way too dark. You’ve got a cast full of actors with very pretty faces. I want to be able to see them! However, the few times we can see faces clearly, they’re the wrong ones. Time and time again Soderbergh cuts to reaction shots when you naturally want to see the person who’s talking instead.
There is some fun to be had with Magic Mike XXL and there’s also no doubt that many will give it a pass as a serviceable summer release, but after the original Magic Mike set the bar so high and proved that it is possible to combine guilty pleasure with quality filmmaking, a small handful of very appealing strip scenes just isn’t enough for me.