Friday, February 10, 2023


 by Rob DiCristino

A bang and a whimper.

When we first meet male entertainment extraordinaire Mike Lane (Channing Tatum) in 2012’s Magic Mike, he presents as a charming multi-hyphenate, an ambitious go-getter perched just at the edge of legitimate success. He’s posturing a bit, sure, never quite as capable or organized as he claims to be, but his is a world of sharp looks and easy smiles, a world in which a little confidence can open just as many doors as the most precise technical acumen. It’s prickly beauty Brooke (Cody Horn) who sees the self-deception behind that swagger, eventually inspiring Mike to quit the gyrational arts and make his entrepreneurial dreams a reality. The custom furniture business is as unforgiving as any, though, and by 2015’s Magic Mike XXL, Brooke has moved on to greener pastures and left Mike to stew on yet another collection of unrealized goals. And so Mike joins the Kings of Tampa for one last ride, a raucous symphony of self-affirmation celebrating that unquenchable thirst, that same charm and energy he’d tried so hard to stamp out.
Ten years — and a global pandemic — later, Mike has found himself pushing forty and at yet another crossroads. He’s washed up as an event bartender in Miami when we rejoin him in Magic Mike’s Last Dance, little more than an implacable face to the sorority girls-turned-trophy wives against whom he once so orgastically grinded. Lucky for him, the host of this particular event is wealthy divorcée Maxandra Mendoza (Salma Hayek Pinault), who happens to be in need of an orgastic grinding. Mike is happy to oblige for a night, but Max sees the magic in those muscles and invites him on a month-long jaunt to London and the storied theater she won in her acrimonious divorce. Mr. Lane’s task is simple: Gather the world’s most chiseled male performers and turn an antiquated, misogynistic play into a celebration of female liberation. Tiptoeing around an unlikely romance, the pair bring their vision to life with help from Max’s precocious adopted daughter (Jemelia George as Zadie) and their starchy butler (Ayub Khan-Din as Victor).

Returning to the director’s chair after turning XXL over to cinematographer Gregory Jacobs, Steven Soderbergh brings his signature slick naturalism to Last Dance, and it’s clear from the film’s steamy opening number that Channing Tatum hasn’t lost a step — pun intended — in the dance department. Series screenwriter Reid Carolin mixes old themes at new angles, building a literal cathedral out of XXL’s exploration of feminine agency and positive, empowering masculinity. As they dance to Mike’s tune, our hunky boys are acting out Max’s repressed desires and flipping an, ahem, engorged middle finger at the jerkass ex-husband who once owned their stage. The essential metaphor is more explicit — no pun intended, that time — than ever, as Zadie’s voice-over narration charts the history of dance as social connection. There’s plenty of connection in Last Dance, enough to send even the squarest audiences home with new ideas on how to forge some “connections” of their own. Sex, I mean. Boning. I’m talking about boning.
With all that said, series devotees will feel a frustrating lack of energy in Last Dance, a clunkiness of message and characterization that Soderbergh is usually savvy enough to avoid. Perhaps that’s because Tatum is relegated to supporting status this time around, with Hayek Pinault driving most of the narrative action. It’s easy to see what Soderbergh and Carolin think they’re doing — Let’s turn a series supposedly rooted in female empowerment over to a woman, for a change — but Max isn’t nearly dynamic or complex enough to make up for what we lose in Mike, whose larger goals and insecurities quietly drove previous entries but are never clearly defined here. Unlike the other films, Last Dance’s climax lacks catharsis because we don’t get to know these boys well enough to understand what they’re expressing or why. Even Mike’s titular last dance with Kylie Shea (whom It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia fans will recognize as Mac’s dance partner) rings hollow because the love it’s symbolizing feels unearned.
If it sounds like I’m overthinking a movie franchise famous for washboard abs and twerking pelvises (pelvisi?), well, maybe you’re just not thinking about it hard enough. The Magic Mike series has always had a thematic richness that, whether recognized by mass audiences or not, goes far beyond its beefcake bravado. It’s always been about finding personal enrichment in a system built on exploitation. It’s always been about reprocessing our aggression into something productive, something that allows us to live authentically without shame or preoccupation. Last Dance wants to be about those same ideas — it tells us, over and over again, that it is — but it fails to embody them in a meaningful way. Instead, it overcompensates with more dancers, more plot (including an Ocean’s-inspired middle act with little lasting impact), and a happily-ever-after romance that undercuts much of what its predecessors taught us about the power of self-definition. At least they had the sense to bring “Pony” back, I guess. That song rips.

Magic Mike’s Last Dance is in theaters now.

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