Mike Lane (Channing Tatum) stands in his garage listening to the radio while he works on some of his custom furniture. Suddenly, his past calls back to him. Ginuwine’s “Pony” comes on, beckoning Mike to give us the goods. He looks up and shakes his head, he traded in his chaps and pelvic thrusts long ago for a shot at getting his own furniture business off the ground. But Ginuwine’s crooning is too much for him, Mike can’t fight it any longer. He whips off the welding mask, and what happens next is a little thing called spectacle. Anything and everything is sexed by Tatum as he humps and spins his way around the room. He grabs a drill and uses it to penetrate the table beneath him with each thrust of his crotch. Not since Prince in Purple Rain have you seen a performer have sex with his surroundings with such commitment.
The script by Reid Carolin adopts the framework of a road movie, finding Mike reuniting with his former pals of The Kings of Tampa – Ken (Matt Bomer), Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello), Tito (Adam Rodriguez), Tobias (Gabriel Iglesias) and Tarzan (Kevin Nash) – sans Dallas and The Kid (played by Matthew McConaughey and Alex Pettyfer in the first film). Finding themselves with no way to continue in their industry, they have decided to have one last blow out at a stripper convention in Myrtle Beach. Mike needs a vacation from his life and agrees to join them.
When Magic Mike opened in the summer of 2012, it was nice surprise on several fronts – it eclipsed all box office expectations, continued Steven Soderbergh’s retirement hot-streak, helped the McConaissance and Tatum’s meteoric rise, but most of all it was actually just a really good film. The audience got what they paid for, but there were also great characters, a strong script and an earnestly felt sense of emotion.
Its sequel is a film that knows why its audience is here, and it never looks down on them for it. There are repeated conversations between the male entertainers revolving around them being healers of sorts, hoping to give their audience a reason to smile and escape from the everyday troubles of their life. This movie seeks to do the same, it just wants to see you smile. Earlier this year, Don Draper wanted to buy the world a Coke – Channing Tatum wants to give the world a lapdance.
While watching Magic Mike XXL, there’s a genuine sense that the entire cast is happy to be here. Each character from the first is explored further, each of them get their moment. Rodriguez and Bomer get to take the character beats from the first film and flesh them into fully formed characters. Manganiello gets the biggest laugh in the film as he puts on an impromptu striptease in a gas station in order to get a smile out of the attendant in a quasi-dare/self discovery moment. Kevin Nash gets some especially heavy moments of his own. Watching Tarzan – sorry, Earnest – in the first film was sort of a sad thing as he was clearly on his last legs in this game. In this film it’s gone from sad to heartbreaking. While most of these guys will live lesser lives after the convention – Tito will be working at a slushee place in the mall, and Richie will be doing groundswork at Tropicana Field – and all of them have their own personal ambitions in life, you get the sense that this is really it for Tarzan.
Each new character makes an immediate impact, fitting right in with the gang. Jada Pinkett Smith commands each of hers as Rome, an emcee tied to Mike’s past. Amber Heard charms her way through some stilted dialogue with Tatum, and there’s also something great about seeing a bisexual character treated with the respect her character of Zoe is. There’s an apparent chemistry between Mike and Zoe, but it refreshingly doesn’t go very far into forced romance territory, stopping at friendship with Mike’s desire to help her overcome some recent disappointment. All talented wunderkind Donald Glover plays Andre, a fellow stripper that helps out the gang. One scene finds him freestyling about an audience member for his routine, and I’m totally convinced he actually the thing unprepared as they were rolling. Stephen “Twitch” Boss breaks out moves with the best of them as fellow stripper Malik. Michael Strahan shows up because apparently he was available and who could say no to being in a Magic Mike movie? Elizabeth Banks lends her chops to a brief role as the host of the convention, and Andie MacDowell gets an MVP caliber scene as a wined-up divorcee the boys run into.
And then there’s Channing Tatum. When Magic Mike came out, it represented significant growth as an actor for Tatum. Here he’s fully grown. Watching him perform these insane routines with the physicality that they require, you know you’re watching a master of their craft. What you see should not be attempted at home. The routines that himself and others perform have a wow factor in them that is not too dissimilar from the wow factor of watching the insane stuntwork and practical effects a few months ago in Mad Max: Fury Road.
Gregory Jacobs steps into the director’s chair here, having been an Assistant Director on the first film. He and Steven “Sure Why Not?” Soderbergh – acting as DP here under his pseudonym Peter Andrews – create a shooting style not to disruptive from Soderbergh’s in the original. They create an almost observant documentarian feel to the film, shooting things in even angles and prolonged takes. There’s something to be said about knowing how to shoot stripping routines for all they’re worth, as this pair does. There’s something curiously refreshing in how Jacobs lets moments of dialogue that fall flat in multiple scenes stay right where they are, noticeably unrehearsed moments actually giving off the impression that what you’re seeing is probably what it’s like to hang out with Tatum rather than derailing the film.
For all the fun this film has, it has a devastating final thought. The gang acts our their own celebratory Ocean’s Eleven moment while watching fireworks on the pier, and we go to a close-up of Tatum. What starts as an appreciative smile fades as a new though emerges: All this, all these good times, it will all end in the morning. It’s a sobering blow to all the good-time antics we’ve just witnessed. After a certain point, Ginuwine’s “Pony” comes to an end.