'Magic Mike XXL': Film Review

Nothing but good times.

Channing Tatum and his crew, sans Matthew McConaughey, are back in this sequel to Steven Soderbergh's movie about male strippers.

Magic Mike XXL is ridiculously entertaining. Living up to the extra-extra-large claim of its title, this follow-up to Steven Soderbergh's rambunctious look at working class dudes making some often moist and wrinkled extra bills as male strippers produces good vibes right out of the box and keeps it up for nearly two hours. Brawny and big-hearted, it's a sequel that might well take in even more than the 2012 original's $113.7 million domestic gross based on an intrinsic appeal that may reach further than its prime target of female and gay audiences.

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This is the love child of a road movie and a let's-put-on-a-show musical, a mixed-breed format that provides a sense of structure and momentum within which almost anything goes. As the sociable gang of buffed and bronzed dancers makes its way in an old ice cream truck from Central Florida up through Georgia and South Carolina to compete at a stripping convention in Myrtle Beach, the film makes you feel that you're just hanging out with some raucous and funny guys, even as it's propelling the action along at a pretty good clip. So diverting is it that the absence of Matthew McConaughey, whose performance as club owner Dallas in the original played an important part in his career turnaround, is scarcely noticed. The same goes for Soderbergh, who stepped aside as director on this one in favor of longtime associate Gregory Jacobs, although Soderbergh maintained an important pseudonymous presence as cinematographer and editor.

To a mild degree, this is also a movie about a "last ride," an occasion that provides the reunited old buddies with a potential final spree together while they're all still young(ish) and their bodies remain in top form. But even as it introduces this potentially mawkish angle, the nimble, quick-witted script by returning screenwriter (and Tatum producing partner) Reid Carolin refuses to take it at all seriously, as it simply notes the passage of time while stressing the importance of living in the present and making the most of your natural gifts. 

In the three years since we last saw him, Tatum's Mike has been trying to make a go of it with his own small woodworking and construction company. But as beautifully as Gene Kelly did in An American in Paris and George Chakiris did at the beginning of West Side Story, Tatum, while laboring in his workshop, slides effortlessly, with the prompting of music, from natural movement into dance, revealing that the man hasn't put his youthful glory behind him yet.

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And neither have his old buddies Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello), pretty boy Ken (Matt Bomer), Tarzan (Kevin Nash), Tito (Adam Rodriguez) and Tobias (Gabriel Iglesias), who lure Mike out under false pretenses so he'll join them for one more sybaritic splurge. The free-wheeling pranks, taunts, jibes and overall sympatico continue unabated; the unending banter the guys exchange doesn't remotely sound written, so naturalistic and spontaneous is it, which is either a tribute to Carolin's scripting skill or the actors' improvisational gifts, or probably both.

As the good times roll from poolside to a night on the beach (where Mike meets an intriguing, guarded young photographer, Zoe (played by Amber Heard), and then to the road, the only real conflict spins on the nature of their upcoming performance: Will it be a greatest hits reprise or something new? With only two days to come up with some fresh routines, the moody, argumentative Richie wants to take the easy way out by just recycling their old act. But when Mike forces him into an impromptu solo dance to make a glum convenience store clerk laugh, Richie rises to the occasion and you know all the boys will be back — and bareback — with some fresh moves on the big night.

As usual, the nights are far more interesting than the days for this crew, which certainly proves the case when they pull into a Savannah establishment Mike remembers from the old days. Run by a classy, somewhat older woman named Rome (Jada Pinkett Smith), with whom Mike has a past, the imposing Victorian mansion has been transformed into a private pleasure palace for black women. The entertainers at Domina include romantic rapper Andre (Donald Glover), awesomely athletic Augustus (former NFL star Michael Strahan) and eccentric dancer Malik (idiosyncratic hip-hop performer Stephen 'tWitch' Boss). Mike (billed in this context as "White Chocolate") has the formidable challenge of following these three impressive performers, but delivers with with a steamy turn that leaves him showered with dollars by the crowd of ooing and ahhing ladies.

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Another connection leads them to a very different group of well-to-do Southern ladies at the tasteful home of Nancy Davidson (Andie MacDowell), a Southern belle of a certain age who's celebrated her divorce with girlfriends and plenty of drink and is very clearly hot to trot. MacDowell, whose career took off with Soderbergh's Sex, Lies, and Videotape, is a hoot as a proper lady who'd like to get very improper. And who should Mike find there but Zoe, who begins to let down her hair in a way that merrily leads to far greater abandon the next night in Myrtle Beach.

At least as much as in the original, what makes XXL go down so enjoyably is that these guys are just out to please; their idea is to make all the ladies in their audiences feel special and catered to, that it's all about them and not about the male ego. Naturally, the ultra-buff men know what they've got and flaunt it, but in a self-consciously fun way, not as an expression of hubris or dominance. The attitude is that we all know why we're here and let's have a good time; this way, all the characters get what they want — or at least what they need — and that includes the movie audience.

Even if he was backed up by Soderbergh behind the camera, Jacobs, who has worked with his esteemed collaborator in various capacities (mainly as producer and/or assistant director) on 17 film and TV projects since 1993, keeps the action popping all the way and makes all the actors look good (Jacobs previously directed two features, Criminal and Wind Chill, in the mid-2000s). And even if Tatum inevitably comes off as the most favored among equals, everyone in the ensemble gets ample opportunity to shine, including the women in featured roles; notably, there are Pinkett Smith, whose "madame" eloquently expresses and caters to the primacy of female pleasure, Elizabeth Banks as the climactic convention's ringleader and Heard as a tightly wound knock-out whom Tatum determines to unwind. 

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In-the-groove musical elements are constant and smartly chosen and mesh with all other elements to create nothing but fun and good times.

Cast: Channing Tatum, Matt Bomer, Joe Manganiello, Kevin Nash, Adam Rodriguez, Gabriel Iglesias, Amber Heard, Donald Glover, Stephen 'tWitch' Boss, Michael Strahan, Andie MacDowell, Elizabeth Banks, Jada Pinkett Smith

Director: Gregory Jacobs

Screenwriter: Reid Carolin

Producers: Nick Wechsler, Gregory Jacobs, Channing Tatum, Reid Carolin

Executive producer: Steven Soderbergh

Director of photography: Peter Andrews

Production designer: Howard Cummings

Costume designer: Christopher Peterson

Editor: Mary Ann Bernard

Music supervisor: Season Kent

Choreographer: Alison Faulk

Casting: Carmen Cuba

R rating, 115 minutes

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