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Review: ‘Magic Mike XXL’ is Steven Soderbergh’s Striptease Concert Film (And That’s Just Fine)

Review: 'Magic Mike XXL' is Steven Soderbergh's Striptease Concert Film (And That's Just Fine)

READ MORE: Soderbergh’s ‘Magic Mike’ Dangles Its Male Strippers With Skill, But To What End? Answer: Several.

Despite its salacious focus on the hedonistic lives of male strippers, Steven Soderbergh’s 2012 Channing Tatum vehicle “Magic Mike” foregrounded the title character’s assertion that his stage career was merely a vessel for his domineering attitude. “I am not my job,” he insisted.

Revisiting Mike and his merry band of beefcakes three years later, the freewheeling “Magic Mike XXL” aims for no such subtleties. Within the opening minutes, several pals from Mike’s former ensemble the Kings of Tampa show up at his modest furniture shop to cajole him into joining them for one last romp at a stripper convention in Myrtle Beach. Is there any doubt he’ll join the fun?

Persistently lighthearted but never less than lively entertainment, “Magic Mike XXL” swaps the meaty conflicts of the first movie — Mike’s showdowns with the strip club entrepreneur memorably embodied by Matthew McConaughey, Mike’s own questionable attempts to take an aimless teenager under his wing — for a breezy musical road trip comedy. The thin story unfolds as a series of lengthy sequences in which the boys either hang out or show off their skills to great effect. Carried along by their charisma and a vivacious sense of motion sure to please Busby Berkeley acolytes and those seeking cheap thrills of the flesh alike, “Magic Mike XXL” is essentially a loose but well-honed add-on pack.

In short, the movie displays an eagerness to tap into the first entry’s baser appeal. The moment Mike returns to his woodshed after receiving his old friends’ offer, the thumping bass line of Ginuwine’s “Pony” comes on the radio, echoing the tune’s appearance in one of his bigger solo numbers from “Magic Mike.” The callback naturally jogs Mike’s memories of his showbiz past, and leads him to the first of many outrageous improvised performances, as he writhes about the room finding inventive ways to use his drill.

Popping and locking with the deft physicality that serves as the movie’s chief special effect, Tatum is an imposing one-man show whose remarkable dexterity temporarily distracts from the underlying absurdity of the situation. When he ultimately collapses in a fit of laughter, the feeling’s mutual: We’re in on the joke, but it holds up.

The ensuing odyssey finds Mike hurdling through the deep south in a camper with his pals “Big Dick” Richie (Joe Manganiello), the hulking Tarzan (Kevin Nash), Tito (Adam Rodriguez), trusty DJ Tobias (Gabriel Iglesias) and fresh-faced Ken (Matt Bomer). Along the way, he meets young, hard-partying Zoe (Amber Heard), who’s fleeing her upper class background, and forms a possibly meaningful romantic bond — though since things apparently didn’t turn out to well with the relationship Mike seemed to be heading toward at the end of the last movie, there’s no reason to assume he could go through any further dramatic transformations at this point. But the ephemeral nature of these experiences give “Magic Mike XXL” its persistent charm. If “Magic Mike” centered on the desire to find stability in the midst of moving chaos, “Magic Mike XXL” celebrates the prospects of enjoying the ride.

As the quintet of dancers careen through a series of oddball encounters in the deep south before arriving at the grand Myrtle Beach finale, “Magic Mike XXL” zips along with a series of prolonged standalone sequences, some more engaging than others. However, as a whole, they’re a total blast held together by sheer technique. While Soderbergh has officially handed the directorial reigns to his longtime cinematographer Gregory Jacobs, the filmmaker allegedly “retired” from directing features instead takes on the role of cinematographer himself this time, in addition to editing duties, and as a result his blueprints are all over the sequel’s colorful appearance and energetic flow.

It’s a testament to Soderbergh’s craftsmanship that a movie strung together by over-the-top dance numbers works as well as it does, particularly once the plot crumbles in the final act. A concert film in narrative guise, “Magic Mike XXL” embodies its protagonists’ inane sense of duty and gives the people what they want.

Unsurprisingly, then, Reid Carolin’s screenplay doesn’t dig especially deep into its characters’ motives. Nevertheless, it spends a sufficient amount of time fleshing out the other members of the troupe previously relegated to the sidelines. Magnaniello, as Big Dick Ritchie, gets an especially noteworthy upgrade, striking an adorable note as a comically muscular figure saddened by the absence of female companionship in his life. Yet even this conundrum mostly sets the stage for another absurd dance number, this one set in a convenience store and based around a dare by his friends in the parking lot to make the female attendant smile. In another movie, his bizarre erotic antics might land him in jail, but conflict in “Magic Mike XXL” is just a hindrance to the next giddy punchline.

Swapping the careerist motives of the “Entourage” bros for unbridled camaraderie, the “Magic Mike XXL” ensemble make for an endearing bunch. While the story sags into conventions as the road trip takes off, it’s never tiring to listen to the men squabble about boy bands or dream up elaborate sets while grinding their teeth on ecstasy. Yet the movie does manage to deepen its scope somewhat as the team makes their way to a Savannah rendezvous where Mike hooks up with a sultry former flame named Rome (Jada Pinkett Smith), who now lords over a subscription-based strip club that’s equal parts “Sleep No More” and “Eyes Wide Shut,” with strippers playing to the crowd from every direction.

This zany visit, which culminates with Mike being yanked into the fray, goes on too long and feels somewhat disjointed in comparison the momentum leading up to it; viewed on its own, however, it presents the same infectious panache as the rest of the movie. That appeal continues later, with Andie MacDowell chewing on scenery as Zoe’s upper-crust mother, who lusts over the men’s bodies when they drop by for a visit and winds up soliciting their services for her equally ravenous friends. It’s here that Bomer, mostly a background figure, gets to shine with a slick rendition of Bryan Adam’s “Heaven” delivered to one swooning middle-aged woman to help her cope with her bedroom woes.

That scene and other jovial moments illustrate the strippers’ cathartic powers, ostensibly elevating them to superhero proportions. The whole thing ramps up to a spirited finale that — like the CGI-fueled spectacles that cap so many Marvel movies — ushers along the inevitable with a spectacular sense of scale.

As Smith takes the microphone to call out the performers (her seductive energy marks her strongest screen presence in years), the Myrtle Beach performance trades plot for a pure cinematic playground of roaming wide angles and flashing lights as the men strut their stuff in a series of inventive circumstances. Depending how much one asks of the movie, it’s either a sturdy finish or more of the same. “Magic Mike XXL” keeps its aspirations low enough to satisfy only the simplest of expectations; at the end of the day, it’s just another party, but sometimes a party is just good enough.

Grade: B+

“Magic Mike XXL” opens nationwide on July 1.

READ MORE: ‘Magic Mike XXL’ Soundtrack Features Backstreet Boys, R. Kelly, Ginuwine, Jodeci, And More

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