While doing some metal grinding in his workshop, Mike Lane (Channing Tatum) hears Ginuwine’s “Pony” start blasting over his Pandora feed. Alone and unobserved, what’s a former stripper – excuse me, male entertainer – supposed to do when his old signature song comes on his shop speakers at random? Keep working, or launch straight into his old routine, just to remind himself that he’s still got it? If you guessed the latter, you are now the proud owner of a figurative gold star – Mike channels his inner Full Monty and starts off with a few head-bobs in acknowledgement of the song… and before you know it, he’s whizzing around his workshop, dancing and writhing like a man possessed.
Which brings us to the whole reason we’re here with Magic Mike XXL, the sequel to 2012’s sleeper hit of the summer, based on Tatum’s real life as a male entertainer and dancer prior to his work in films. Does Magic Mike still have the charm to lead Warner Bros. Pictures to box office glory? I have to say yes, as Magic Mike XXL is almost a wholly different animal than its predecessor. Rather than ensnaring the viewers in the backroom politics of the Xquisite Strip Club and diving into the seamy underside of the business, director Gregory Jacobs and writer Reid Carolin take us into the light – well, for most of the movie – and focus on a family reunited for one last hurrah.
It’s been three years since “Magic” Mike quit the stripping business, using his passion for custom furniture building for profit and a way out from under his former boss Dallas’ (Matthew McConaughey, not appearing in this film) thumb. With his effervescent charm, great looks, and – let’s face it – fit body, Channing Tatum coolly eases back into the role he’d written for himself from his personal experiences as a male entertainer prior to becoming the household name that he has become. He’s still ever the boy next door when he wants to be, but excitement brought to raging life when the switch is flipped. Having grown up a little to handle his nascent furniture business, he’s contacted by former fellow Xquisite dancer Tarzan (Kevin Nash), who tells him that “Dallas is gone.”
Taking that to mean “dead,” Mike shows up at a local hotel in a full suit and tie ready to attend a wake… only to hear AC/DC blaring from a stereo somewhere in the vicinity of the pool, where Tarzan, along with the rest of his stripper brothers, the “Kings of Tampa” – Ken (Matt Bomer), “Big Dick” Richie (Joe Manganiello), Tito (Adam Rodriguez), and DJ/emcee Tobias (Gabriel Iglesias) – are throwing each other into the pool, drinking beers, and generally having a great time. The truth is, Dallas has taken The Kid (Alex Pettyfer, also not appearing in this movie) to Europe to start their business there, leaving the Kings of Tampa to twist in the wind. After meeting the dour Dolley Titz (Amber Heard), a down-on-her-luck photographer who reminds him of the life he once had, Mike joins the menboys and accompanies them on what they’re deeming as their last ride: a final appearance at a stripper convention in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
When I say “menboys,” I mean it – here, we have some grown-ass men who do adult things for a living, yet don’t know what to do with themselves when they finally get out. And those that do have an idea aren’t going for your normal 9-5 job; they’re trying to extend their party life, be it through a food truck that sells frozen yogurt and boasts a DJ booth (which, coincidentally, they’re using to drive to the convention), or making “condom-mints” (say it fast) to sell in drugstores and restroom machines. Life under Dallas has robbed them of any potential and inspiration, and they’re about to go to this stripper convention to bust out their old, triumphant, well-worn routines. However, two things come of ill-advised drug use one day in the truck: the inspiration to get out from under Dallas’ influence and do new stuff, and the unfortunate temporary loss of their emcee Tobias.
Desperate for transportation and a replacement emcee, Mike turns to the last person he danced for before joining Dallas and the Xquisite crew: Rome (Jada Pinkett Smith), the owner of a private male strip club in Savannah, Georgia (whose stable includes Michael Strahan, Michael “tWitch” Boss, and Donald Glover). Oozing seduction, and with a palpable heat almost reaching through the screen and burning you, Pinkett Smith absolutely owns this role as the sexy-but-NEVER-sleazy Rome; she instantly commands respect from not just Mike, his crew, the people working her club, or the club’s guests, but from us in the film auditorium’s seats. If Matthew McConaughey was heralded for his role as Dallas in the first, I hope some of that laudatory praise will be saved for Pinkett Smith, as I’ve never seen anyone – not even McConaughey himself – enthrall this much by being such a bedeviling temptress.
Taking over the reins from original director Steven Soderbergh (who, incidentally, handles cinematography duties on this film, the first time he’s done so for a film he hasn’t directed), Jacobs keeps the narrative focused on the road trip party that this most definitely is, keeping internal drama to a minimum by either dismissing it outright or dealing with it in humorous ways. Instead, we’re treated to an almost Ocean’s Eleven-like scheme where the payoff nets large results (and to be sure, there’s a little nod to the end of Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven), and spirits are kept high. Some may find it depressing to watch these menboys flounder through their lives, saying stuff like “Ubangi?” (“you bangy”) when asking about whether or not one of them has conquered their previous night’s sexual target, or lamenting one’s success and others’ failures, or really not having a clue how to function in the real world.
Most audiences, including myself, will find it charming and cute in that childish way. Road trip movies like these usually show the true natures of each character, as there always comes a point where whatever front a person puts on gets disarmed or discarded in a very humorous or dramatic fashion. Carolin’s script keeps all of it humorous while never losing sight of the finality of what the Kings of Tampa are about to do; this is their rite of passage, their last bow, their final blowout before their rebirth as (hopefully) functioning adults. We see Richie desperately holding on to his notions of how his life (and everyone else’s lives) should be, while the inevitable explosion – or expulsion – out of their collective chrysalis looms large. Gone are the backstage antics, the diva-like drama, and sneaky penis-enlargement sight gags; in place of all that is a road trip story that, while familiar, continues to shine because of the humorous strength that this family of male entertainers shows for each other. With a tighter narrative, lots of fun, and one hell of a sexy performance by Jada Pinkett Smith, Magic Mike XXL bests the original every way.