Magic Mike XXL presents its mission statement early in the film. Mike Lane (Channing Tatum) has rejoined the Kings of Tampa on One Last Ride, their road trip to the fabled Stripper Convention in Myrtle Beach. Last they saw him he had walked out of the club, abandoning them and the lifestyle. Ken (Matt Bomer) seems to have hard feelings about this, and Mike notices, and drinking on the beach he offers Ken a free punch to get the aggression out. Ken punches, Mike doubles over in pain and asks “Do you feel better?”
“No,” Ken tells him. “There are better ways to work this shit out.”
And that’s what Magic Mike XXL does for the rest of its running time. This is a film with no true central conflict, with no serious external stakes and with absolutely no competition. The Kings of Tampa aren’t going to the convention to win or get money or be crowned the best in the nation - they’re going there to have fun and dance well and pleasure as many women at once as they can.
This makes Magic Mike XXL feel absolutely revolutionary, like it is blazing a new path in how we can tell stories in movies. What if the conflicts are all internal, and what if their overcome not through action or hurting people but by people talking to each other and supporting each other? I know that this sounds boring but Magic Mike XXL is a joy, an affirmation of happiness, a movie that makes you feel better about yourself at every turn.
It’s also a movie that has some radical views about women, namely that their pleasures and wants matter. This is the explicit message of the film, and it’s the explicit driving force for these ‘male entertainers,’ who are doused in dollar bills they never bother picking up. What they really want, the movie says, is to make these women smile, to make them feel wanted and sexy, to make them happy for a moment in time. The male stripper exists not just as a sexual fantasy but as an emotional one as well, as a man who listens and who is attentive to a woman’s longings and reactions. Donald Glover appears as a (remarkably skinny) stripper whose act involves him taking improv-style cues from a woman and then dropping a freestyle rap on her while also dropping himself in her lap. The rap is about her, with her specific interests and history worked in, and it’s a moment where this woman feels important.
Glover is introduced at Domina, a private house club run by Jada Pinkett Smith’s Rome. She’s the queen of her castle but she is happy to share it with other queens, and as MC that’s how she refers to her audience - queens. And she brings them together, to enjoy these men not as individuals (although the one-on-one dancing style means some individuals get more time than others) but as a group experiencing things together. This is the continuation of the non-competitive, conflict-free aspect of Magic Mike XXL - all of these women are beautiful, all of these women are united together in their excitement and happiness, all of these women are queens and equal and all of them are important.
It’s actually moving at times, because you understand that this is something the movies do not do. It isn’t just about female gaze on the glistening hard bodies of Channing Tatum and company, it’s about the return of the gaze from these men in the right way. It isn’t just that the women are looking at the men, it’s that the strippers are paying attention to the women. On their road trip they meet women, come into their houses, talk to them, help them, heal them and also perform raunchy as fake simulated sexual acts upon them. And the women on screen look like the women in the audience, some of them fat, some of them older, some of them plain, all of them treated with respect for their desires and pleasures.
It's also exceptionally well-made; Steven Soderbergh has stepped away from the director's chair but he was still on set as the DP and worked as the editor, and his long-time assistant director Gregory Jacobs takes the spotlight. There are some really wonderful shots in the film, but rarely anything too flashy. It's all stuff that accentuates the dances, that zeroes in on the camera and, every now and again, gives you the shock of a really great visual moment. There's a camera that floats up and down during Big Dick Richie's final dance that is hypnotic and thrilling. The film is lit wonderfully, each location evoking a very specific mood; when Mike first meets Zoe (Amber Heard) the whole scene is saturated in shadows, a meet-cute that looks like it's from an art film.
But am I ever off course here, because you would not know how fun Magic Mike XXL is from all of this serious writing I’m doing. The movie is a blast, much lighter than the first film with its descent into drug addiction. This is a film where everybody heals and comes together, where every character is treated with dignity and where everyone gets to make personal breakthroughs that could make them better, more satisfied people. It’s a film that stops dead for lengthy, extraordinary dance numbers, all presented with a mischievous glee. It’s a funny movie, filled with hilarious moments of lovable goofiness from the super hot Kings of Tampa. But it’s a movie where none of the laughs come at anyone’s expense - even Ken, whose goofy Reiki healing and meditation practices elicit chuckles is taken seriously as a person throughout.
There’s better character work in this movie about male strippers driving to a convention than in most of the $200 million blockbusters this summer. Each of the Kings has a small arc, each sketched out in a mixture of dance and dialogue. Every actor is fun and warm, allowing you in to their story and making you root for them. Some of the scenes are slower paced - this is the only complaint I have about the film, to be honest - but there’s such a sense of luxurious hanging out that it rarely irks. Even Kevin Nash's Tarzan gets an affecting little story that adds so much depth to this beefcake who cannot dance.
Channing Tatum is magnificent as Mike. His own journey is the journey of the movie - he begins alone, having been left by Brooke despite giving her everything he thought she wanted. But the reality is that he didn’t know what she wanted, he didn’t listen, and he learns that lesson. Tatum’s moves are next-level here, befitting the film’s slight step into a fantasy world (both the stripper convention and Domina feel like they exist in a reality off to the left of ours), and his routines are very acrobatic and very aggressive. Mike acts as a counselor for much of the movie, listening to people, allowing them to air their grievances, giving them good fist bumps.
The real star of this movie is Joe Manganiello as Big Dick Rickie. It’s that big dick that’s causing him problems; at age 35 he is having a hard time finding a woman who will look at his massive schlong and allow him to go all the way - he’s referred to as Cinderella looking for his glass slipper. He’s incredibly funny and astonishingly sweet, especially in a scene where he’s rolling on molly and trying to make a convenience store clerk smile with a sexy dance. This is a role that could have, in other hands, been a creepy and aggressive hypermasculine creep, but Manganiello has the comic genius and a soft edge (not present on his incredibly ripped body) that makes him sweet and loveable.
Jada Pinkett Smith is also an MVP; her Rome is a complex and sexually well-rounded woman, and her skills as an MC are on point and keeps the hype train rolling. But what I like about her is the way that she tells an entire story of a past history with Mike - she used to know him as White Chocolate - with little more than sensuality. This woman is a great actor, a great physical actor, and I don’t think she’s had enough opportunities to show this to us.
Magic Mike XXL is a triumph. While it’s lighter and sillier than the original film, which had a surprising 70s character piece vibe, it’s actually got a depth and empathy that makes it feel more profound. XXL is much more the movie that people thought Magic Mike was, and that’s actually a good thing - this is a film that listened to its audience and understood its wants and desires, that takes their pleasures and sexuality seriously. It is the thing it is talking about being, giving the film a wholeness that is rare in cinema. It’s one of the best sequels I’ve ever seen, a movie that takes the elements that truly connected in the first film and expands on them smartly, a movie that is all about pandering but never actually feels pandering. It’s one of the best movies of the summer, and it will leave you feeling so goddamned good.