Here’s the thing about the evolving Magic Mike series: It’s not about the stripping. Sure, the dance moves are fantastic, but at the heart of it, it’s about Mike Lane (Channing Tatum) trying to find his way amid shady club owners (Magic Mike), impending adulthood (Magic Mike XXL), and, finally, being someone’s everything while becoming the man he’s meant to be. It all comes to a close with Magic Mike’s Last Dance, the final chapter of an 11-year saga.
Eleven years of watching Mike and his dance partners tantalize their audiences with writhing and suggestive gyrations. It’s quite a legend Tatum has made from his former days as a male entertainer, and this installment finds his proxy taking more of a creator role rather than staying in the limelight. Suddenly whisked from Miami to London by socialite Maxandra “Max” Mendoza (Salma Hayek Pinault) after a night of awakening her passion, he finds himself as the new director of a stage show.
Seriously. A London theatre has been put at his disposal to retool the play they’ve got running – a ho-hum show about a woman forced to choose between love and money, which backhandedly reflects the film’s theme and Max’s story. Along with the theatre comes a multitude of problems: Max’s pending divorce from a wealthy husband, her social standing, building permits, and – most importantly – Max’s daughter, Zadie (Jemelia George). Worst of all, Mike and Max have electricity flowing between them that they absolutely must deny in order to get this job done.
It’s a thin setup – especially considering the kind of stiff-upper-lip kind of play it is and what Max has planned for the revamp – and it leans a little toward the familiar setup of Magic Mike XXL, where Mike leads a gang of intrepid performers on one last hurrah while accompanied by a bedeviling MC. But Steven Soderbergh’s return to the franchise as director (he only carried cinematography and editing duties for the second film) has ensured plenty of visual fun, and his signature matter-of-fact style that gives room for writer Reid Carolin’s script to pop.
Of course, a lot of it seems off-the-cuff when played straight by Channing Tatum, which contrasts Salma Hayek Pinault’s fiery performance. The film’s purpose lies in Max, as it’s her project; it is also her statement, her master’s thesis after frequently starting and stopping what Zadie calls her “phases.” She’s done it so many times, she’s earned the nickname “Queen of the First Act.” Initially, she’s seen walking through her own fundraiser “like a zombie,” as one observer notes; but when Mike enters her life, something is stirred within her that she needs to share with everyone, to make an audience feel like she does after one of Mike’s gravity-defying dances. And what do you know – through her failed marriage, she owns the theatre where she can stage her vision.
Through Max’s harried and devil-may-care initiative, we also see Mike find his awakening. Zadie’s deadpan, pointed narration (which pops in and out like a Shakespearean chorus) lets us know that the pandemic hasn’t been kind to Mike’s furniture business and that he’s had it rough the last few years. When we first lay eyes on him, he’s working as a gentle bartender at the aforementioned fundraiser, where a former client recognizes him with veiled references to his old profession. But the further along we go on this journey, we see Mike’s eyes lighting up in his interactions with Max and as he directs new talent to give their audience the experience of a lifetime.
Stylistically, Soderbergh pulls out all the stops – pre-lapped dialogue, distorted fisheye photography (check out the tilt shot introducing us to the Rattigan Theatre), and a crafty mix of bold and muted lighting – to keep us in the moment. If he’s not engaging us with the heat from the dancers (cheers to choreographers Alison Faulk and Luke Broadlick!), then he’s letting Mike’s strange surroundings speak for themselves. He also gets down-to-earth performances which make this film more than just a comedy; there’s a spark he creates by allowing us to feel like we’re flies on the wall watching Mike’s and Max’s lives in upheaval, which more than supplies ample laughs and drama.
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