Magic Mike was essentially an art house movie. Endowed with a modest $7 million budget, the 2012 Channing Tatum vehicle was branded a “surprise hit” when it grossed $167 million worldwide and garnered warm critical reviews, including sincere (if ultimately futile) Oscar buzz for costar Matthew McConaughey. Interestingly, though, the reason Magic Mike gained legitimacy with critics also served as the basis for audiences’ most vocal complaint: for a film whose popular appeal stemmed almost entirely from the promise of hot, naked men, it’s a rather serious affair, dealing with the then-ongoing economic recession and drug addiction. Or, as Tatum succinctly put it, people wanted “less story. Less plot. Just dudes’ things.”
On that front, the sequel delivers. Appropriately titled Magic Mike XXL, it costs twice as much as its predecessor ($14.8 million, still economical compared to most high-profile summer flicks these days) and throws restraint out the window. To say there’s a story here would be lenient. The first hour or so teases us with a flimsy narrative about coping with disappointment in life, but any semblance of genuine conflict dissipates by the time Mike and co. arrive at the exclusive club run by Jada Pinkett Smith’s suave emcee Rome. At this point, the film, helmed by frequent Steven Soderbergh collaborator Gregory Jacobs, sheds its semi-respectable guise and reveals itself as a full-blown musical, a parade of exuberant dance and song numbers (the latter courtesy of Matt Bomer and Donald Glover) punctuated by snippets of dialogue. The soundtrack is seductively frothy, with tracks as varied as the Backstreet Boys’s “I Want It That Way” and Nine Inch Nails’s “Closer” competing to get lodged in your head.
Above all else, however, Magic Mike XXL’s success depends on its cast. It’s hard not to miss McConaughey, who more or less singlehandedly elevated the original from disposable trifle to enjoyable romp with his swaggering, charismatic turn as the sleazy Dallas; the XXL actors seem to realize this, as they spend a good chunk of the first act alternately lamenting and joking about his absence. Jada Pinkett Smith comes closest to filling that Texas-sized hole, emanating “cool” with her fedora and platform heels, though her character is too underdeveloped to make a lasting impression. As for the central crew, they get the job done where it matters: namely, they’re sexy as hell. Joe Manganiello (aka the werewolf from True Blood) is especially fun to watch, having been gifted the movie’s most memorable scene, and Tatum brings more of the agile dance moves and unpretentious charm that’ve made him an unexpected star. They all share a good-natured, bro-y chemistry that’s weirdly endearing; unlike with most dude-centric movie friendships, you really get the sense that these people care about each other.
Funnily, though, for all the spectacle and hype, Magic Mike XXL is light on actual nudity. There are no full-frontal shots, which will no doubt be disappointing to some, and in fact, many of the stripping scenes are performed clothed, like the one pictured above. The provocative creativity of the original has been replaced by something more playful and tame, aimed more at amusing the audience than shocking or arousing them; tellingly, the camera during the climactic routine focuses on the spectators’ and participants’ reactions instead of fixating on the entertainers’ sculpted bodies. The whole thing is bathed in sleek yet natural-looking lighting, warding off any hint of sleaze (Magic Mike director Steven Soderbergh has returned as cinematographer, editor and executive producer, and his influence is visible in the abundance of yellow tones). It’s all very nice, which isn’t a bad thing so much as just not what you expect from a movie about male strippers.