How exactly does one follow up Magic Mike, the surprise-hit, male-stripper melodrama that catered to a heated audience (mainly female, slightly male) but served them a cinematic buffet concocted by skilled storyteller Steven Soderbergh? Easy. You take the show on the road. To that extent, Magic Mike XXL is the most accurate depiction of male entertainers road-tripping from Tampa to Myrtle Beach for an annual convention that Hollywood has ever produced. If you only see one movie this summer about male strippers bonding over unfulfilled dreams while they titillate female clientele, make sure it’s this one. Why? Because it’s great.
Magic Mike XXL often operates as the movie Entourage desperately wanted to be – or worse, actually thinks that it is. It’s 100% bro-powered, telling the low-stakes story of impossibly handsome dudes living their irregular lives, and inviting us along for the intimate ride. But the camaraderie and mutual respect – the Zen-like “chi” that’s preached and practiced by the men of Mike -- is as organic as unforced as Entourage was artificial. As a result, Magic Mike is believable, embraceable, and worthy of celebration. Where Richard Donner’s Superman once inspired us to believe that a man can fly, Magic Mike XXL convinces us beyond a shadow of a doubt that a dancer can leave the stage behind and open an ice cream truck that has a DJ booth attached -- entertaining the masses and satisfying their sweet tooth at the same time.
Picking up shortly after Magic Mike concluded, the sequel finds Mike (Channing Tatum) struggling to get his carpentry business off the ground when a phone call summons him back to Florida’s Gulf Coast. Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), the freewheeling choreographer and club owner, has jumped ship, leaving beautiful but dense dancers “Big Dick” Richie (Joe Manganiello), Tarzan, (Kevin Nash), Ken (Matt Bomer) and Tito (Adam Rodriguez) rudderless. Sensing that their stripper endeavors are drawing to a close, the guys agree to venture to South Carolina for one last blowout bash at an annual dancers’ convention. Along the way, Mike convinces them to ditch the routines that Dallas burned into their individual memories (“You are not a fireman, Richie”) and embrace new routines that come from the heart. And the crotch. But mainly from the heart.
Magic Mike XXL pulls off a legitimate magic trick, recognizing the expectations of its suddenly sizable fanbase and somehow exceeding them. Magic Mike XXL isn’t surprising anyone this time out. The original film cost roughly $7 million, but went on to gross a massive $167 million, fuelled by female curiosity, the magnetism of Tatum (and his co-stars), and legitimately positive word of mouth that proclaimed Soderbergh crafted a moving soap-opera in a seedy, sweat-soaked Tampa strip club – the unlikeliest of cinematic communities. Audiences came to the theater with crumpled up singles, but left Magic Mike with soggy tissues, emotionally buying in to the ongoing struggles of these three-dimensional dancers.
A sequel was inevitable, and with it comes change. Soderbergh opted to stay in his self-imposed “retirement,” handing the directing duties over to longtime collaborator Gregory Jacobs (though Soderbergh did contribute to XXL as a cinematographer and editor, explaining why this follow-up has the same sweaty, late-night shimmer of the first film). And now that he has an Oscar on his shelf, McConaughey chose to hang up Dallas’ leather chaps and opt out of the fun. No bother. His mystical aura is usurped by a larger-than-life Jada Pinkett Smith, who slinks across the screen and deliberately swipes every scene as Rome, an uber-confident and confidence-boosting Savannah strip club owner who welcomes Mike back into her world of empowerment. Like Dallas, Rome resembles a character we only think exists on screen in stories like Mike XXL, and I wondered numerous times during her unique scenes if this person, and her establishment, actually exist. Moving forward, however, I don’t need more Rome. Quite the contrary. I’d be thrilled if each Magic Mike sequel found a new character actor willing to fill the “role” of outsized Mike mentor, the way McConaughey and Pinkett Smith already have.
Wait, subsequent Magic Mike movies? You better believe it. Magic Mike XXL is a different movie than its predecessor. It’s less serious, and far more entertaining… by design. It’s funny, sweet, sexy and surprisingly unpredictable. And yes, the dance sequences are creatively provocative, just as you were hoping. XXL sheds the heaviest baggage of Soderbergh’s initial foray, keeping just enough drama to ensure tension, then filling in the gaps with unfiltered bro-heavy chemistry. It’s a winning formula, and one that proves that Mike’s world is one worth revisiting, just to spend time with these friends. We spend a lot of time talking about developing Cinematic Universes for characters who don tights and capes. What about the guys who slip out of their super suits to entertain? Don’t they deserve their own multi-film series? If and when Magic Mike XXL matches the box-office bar set by the original, it’s time we start having that conversation.