*½/**** Image A Sound A Extras C+
starring Channing Tatum, Salma Hayek Pinault, Ayub Khan Din, Vicki Pepperdine
written by Reid Carolin
directed by Steven Soderbergh
by Bill Chambers Loosely based on star and co-scenarist Channing Tatum's exotic-dancer past, Steven Soderbergh's Magic Mike was a pleasant surprise for treating the world of male strippers seriously--if finally too seriously, as the buoyant first half gives way to a heavy-handed moralizing reminiscent of Soderbergh's Traffic in the second. Sex work in Magic Mike is something to transcend through drugs or a trade skill. Gregory Jacobs's terrific follow-up, Magic Mike XXL, washed away the Afterschool Special aftertaste of the original by taking shame out of the equation: A road movie that finds Mike and the remaining "Kings of Tampa" travelling to a stripping convention in Myrtle Beach, it's a celebration of a certain esprit de corps. Despite the instantly iconic scene of Joe Manganiello dancing to "I Want It That Way" for the amusement of a supermarket cashier, Magic Mike XXL wasn't zeitgeist-defining like its predecessor, but it nails the hangout-movie vibe Soderbergh was chasing in his Ocean's sequels, and will no doubt endure as the Godfather Part II/Empire Strikes Back of Magic Mike movies. And what will Magic Mike's Last Dance go down as? Something like the Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo of the trilogy is my best guess. I have no idea if Soderbergh's longtime AD Jacobs was merely a figurehead on Magic Mike XXL, which was made in that weird period of Soderbergh's "retirement" from feature filmmaking (though he still served as the picture's cinematographer), but in returning to the helm for Magic Mike's Last Dance, Soderbergh directs like someone who's been shown where the g-spot is and can't for the life of him remember, so he'll have to bluff his way through it.
Having lost his furniture business amid the pandemic, ex-stripper Mike Lane (Tatum) is gigging at the outset of Magic Mike's Last Dance, bartending a catered party at the home of rich lady Max (Salma Hayek Pinault). One of the guests, Kim (Caitlin Gerard), recognizes Mike from the old days, sparking a genuinely funny exchange in which she and Mike speak in code so as not to incur the judgments of her husband (Christopher Bencomo). Word of Mike's "magic" reputation gets back to Max, who's having a shitty time of things and thinks a dance from him would cheer her up. For $60,000, he says, he'll unretire. She talks him down to $6000. Mike proceeds to do his thing, and it's cool to see traces of Santanico Pandemonium come out of Hayek Pinault as the dance becomes a tango--inasmuch as a dry hump can become a tango. This opening sequence could be one of the vignettes in Magic Mike XXL about making a cougar's day, but both Soderbergh--never one to make the same movie twice--and Mike choose to explore this relationship (or, more to the point, dynamic). Mike and Max sleep together, whereupon he turns down the $6000. But like a lion who's had a thorn pulled from its paw, she wants to do something for this would-be gigolo and offers him the full $60K to come work for her for a month in London. After a comically perfunctory "we're in England now" montage, Max storms the Rattigan, her estranged husband's theatre, and beseeches Mike to help transform the play they're doing into a strip revue.
Though Mike must contend with Max's surly teenage daughter Zadie (Jemelia George), their crabby butler Victor (Ayub Khan-Din), and Max's own cagily defined bipolar tendencies, Magic Mike's Last Dance is a profoundly low-stakes throwback to "let's put on a show" musicals whose biggest plot complication is whether a permit crisis can be solved in time. The vibe is so chill here it's evaporated to a wispiness that closes the door to anything outside the realm of manic pixie dreaming. A cute early scene on Max's private plane is actually a fairly good précis of what's wrong with Magic Mike's Last Dance: Mike picks the cucumbers off his finger sandwiches; "I don't fuck with vegetables," he tells Max, prompting her to ask how he maintains that buff body of his. He chalks it up to genetics. It's funny, I guess (especially how the vein of jealousy in Max's disbelief reflects a viewer's mortal resentments), yet it's also a decisive move away from the poignant commentary on aging and the passage of time introduced by a simple cutaway to Kim pawing at Mike in the original Magic Mike during Gerard's aforementioned cameo. It nudges Mike into the territory of Greek god, which is considerably less interesting than watching him become a real boy in the first two films. "Who are you?" Max asks the orgasm-giving, money-refusing Mike, but it's a rhetorical question, not an invitation to probe. It's the kind of thing you say to Superman, or Dirk Diggler. Mike used to be "magic, but." Now he's just magic. This is Soderbergh's contribution to the superhero genre.
Even the precedent of Soderbergh's unconventional sequels to Ocean's Eleven couldn't prepare me for the uniquely disappointing decision to ditch the ensemble ethic in Magic Mike's Last Dance. Matt Bomer's Ken, Adam Rodriguez's Tito, Kevin Nash's Tarzan, and Manganiello's Big Dick Richie appear only briefly in a Zoom chat with Mike, and their lower halves are missed almost as much as their camaraderie. They're replaced by a small army of interchangeable hunks who may as well be patching in from a foreign country, too, at least until the opening-night performance that constitutes the climax. It's a pity, because character development happens on the dance floor in the Magic Mike-verse as much as it does through dialogue--and the new crop of strippers don't speak, either. I want to talk about the mid-film sequence wherein the dancers hijack the double-decker bus that Edna Eaglebauer (Vicki Pepperdine), a middle-aged city councilwoman who dresses like Paddington, rides every day. They're hoping to entice her into signing off on temporary changes to a historical site, i.e., the Rattigan. It's an Ocean's-esque mini-caper in the worst ways, its magical thinking betraying any vestige of gravitas or naturalism as brutally as Matt Damon's fake nose. And yet, having ventured into a world of stripper flash mobs and rapt spinsters, Soderbergh doesn't even seize the opportunity for a big dance number, instead cutting from the reveal that one of them is flamboyantly attired in a swan costume--Edna once shut down a production of Swan Lake--to Edna stamping "approved" on a brick of forms.
Watching late-period Soderbergh, which I appear to be alone in feeling no affection for, I find I often can't tell the difference between what is intellectual perversity (like how High-Flying Bird is a basketball movie without any basketball, the same way sex, lies, and videotape was a sex movie without any sex) and what is, er, the side effects of being a 60-year-old director who's averaged one-two films a year as his own cinematographer and editor since long about 2002's Solaris--be they boredom, fatigue, complacency, or something else. Max and Mike first meet in a 29-second-long two-shot during which Soderbergh rather risibly keeps rack-focusing back and forth between Hayek Pinault and Tatum--technique that would seem more at home in a Henry Jaglom movie or a TikTok video. I'm sure I'd be humbled to hear Soderbergh's thought process behind this odd choice of framing (he's such a good salesman that he's branched out into hawking Bolivian brandy), but whenever he expresses awe to an interviewer over David Fincher's perfectionism or the fact that George Miller shot the amazingly complex Fury Road in a matter of months, not years, I hear someone whose solipsism has muted his creative drive.
Mike gets the new show up and running on time, transforming Isabel Ascendant--a costume drama that's "the same old will-she-marry-for-love-or-money bullshit," according to Max, who met her husband while performing in the play when it debuted at the Rattigan in 2004--into a male-centric burlesque with an irreverence that is damningly auteurist, recalling Soderbergh's fan edits of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Raiders of the Lost Ark, not to mention the ransom note his producer's cut made of Lodge Kerrigan's perfect as-is Keane. I love the 'Homer Simpson in a beret' vibes Tatum gives off whenever Mike talks about his "vision," though Mike proving to be a savant of sorts at directing and choreography--a Bizarro World version of Matthew McConaughey's amoral Dallas, whose absence continues to haunt these sequels--is barely acknowledged as the cure for an existential crisis Mike has suffered since film one. Instead, the picture leans into Mike's budding romance with Max for its feel-good tingle. Haven't we been there before with Cody Horn and Amber Heard? And where are they now? A moment near the end where Zadie and Victor bicker backstage over whether their cue is Ginuwine's "Pony"--which is our cue to point at the screen excitedly, à la the DiCaprio meme--reminded me of when Soderbergh moved Best Actor to the end of his disastrous 2021 Oscar telecast under the assumption that Chadwick Boseman's posthumous win would make for such shattering television that nothing could follow it. (Then Anthony Hopkins won.[*]) His M.O. is so unsentimental that these attempts to crowd-please feel ghoulishly cynical--although I forgive him the random insert of kittens, as I'd forgive anyone.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Warner brings Magic Mike's Last Dance to Blu-ray in a 2.39:1, 1080p transfer; although it was finished in 4K, there are currently no plans for a physical UHD release. Like the preceding films, the picture was shot with state-of-the-art RED cameras using Hawk V-Lite anamorphic lenses, and if you were to stitch the trilogy together, I imagine there would be little discontinuity in terms of aesthetics. The image on this disc is lovely, sporting a glassy clarity and impressive dynamic range. Soderbergh, as Peter Andrews, remains fond of yellow lighting schemes, but artistic and technical developments have led to a more nuanced palette no matter the dominant hue. Predictably, the showstopping finale is sleekly presented, with brilliant pops of colour. A brief switch to black-and-white looks handsomely smoky.
The attendant, old-school 5.1 DTS-HD MA track is notable for its phat low-end: you will feel the music, as well as the cramped acoustics of the Rattigan. This is a hemispheric mix in accordance with the diegesis, so much so that you get why Soderbergh eschewed Dolby Atmos--though some may wish there were height channels when the music goes quiet and it starts raining on stage for Mike's balletic curtain call. Video-based extras include "Magic Mike's New Moves" (6 mins., HD) and "Edna Expanded" (8 mins.), the former a promotional piece that gives choreographers Alison Faulk and Luke Broadlick their due while crediting this movie's existence to the Vegas tie-in show, Magic Mike Live. I learned that off-camera, people call Channing Tatum "Chan." Taking the expressionism much farther than it ever gets in Magic Mike's Last Dance, "Edna Expanded" is the so-called Swan Lake number featuring the seduction of Miss Edna Eaglebauer in its entirety. Eventually, she winds up at a piano store, playing for the poshly-dressed dancers as they frolic around her. Is this set-piece up there with Busby Berkeley or even the best Dennis Potter musicals? Not exactly. Is its removal nonetheless an act of cowardice? In my humble opinion, yes. DVD and digital copies of the film are bundled with the Blu-ray.
112 minutes; R; 2.39:1 (1080p/MPEG-4); English 5.1 DTS-HD MA, French Canadian DD 5.1, Spanish DD 5.1; English SDH, French, French Canadian, Latin Spanish, Castilian Spanish subtitles; BD-50 + DVD-9; Region-free; Warner
[*] There was indeed nowhere left to go, partly because Hopkins wasn't at the ceremony. He felt unsafe flying to Los Angeles amid COVID, and Soderbergh had prohibited remote acceptance speeches.