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Eighteen Marvel films have come and gone since 2015’s Magic Mike XXL, our previous entry in the MMCU. But in the interim, the spray-tanned series—which screenwriter Reid Carolin and director Steven Soderbergh (also working as cinematographer and editor under pseudonyms) kicked off in 2012 with a loose retelling of producer/star Channing Tatum’s youthful adventures in the skin trade—has spawned a multicity live show. It was on its way to Broadway when Soderbergh caught it in London and decided he could retcon Magic Mike’s journey to the stage into a third film.
The result, Magic Mike’s Last Dance, is both the slightest of the trilogy and still a seductive good time. What it loses from Mikes’ past in bro-ey camaraderie and dark observations about the bump-and-merciless-grind of capitalism, it gains in fissile chemistry between Tatum and Salma Hayek Pinault.
Pinault plays Maxandra, a disaffected soon-to-be-divorcee who offers Mike—reduced to tending bar at a fundraiser at one of Maxandra’s homes—an extravagant bonus to dry-hump her out of her one-percenter ennui. Their acrobatic night of passion, barely 10 minutes into the film, is so exquisite that she invites him home with her to London. She refuses to specify what exactly she wants him to do for her there, beyond the fact that it’s not the not-sex (but then, inevitably, sex) for which Mike has already refused payment. That’s our first clue that Mike, down on his luck but still the most charismatic and limber-limbed spokesperson for free markets there ever was, is catching feelings. We’ve seen it happen before.
He’s 40 now, and Tatum is a hair older than that, not that there’s any evidence beyond the fact he keeps his shirt on for most of this iteration. Some viewers will no doubt resent that, but Mike Lane—the roof-tiling, event-managing, custom furniture-designing, business plan-making Hello Dolly of male entertainers—has been plotting his escape from labor to management for as long as we’ve known him. Let us not begrudge him his success.
Pinault is 14 years older than Tatum, an even larger margin of seniority over her co-star than that of Thandiwe Newton, who was originally cast as Maxandra. That’s in keeping with the Mike-iad’s foregrounding of (straight) women’s pleasure, and it’s a shame that this alone is rare enough a thing to make these films feel fresh and exciting even when the story is as much of an afterthought as it is this time.
Briefly: Maxandra wants to settle a score with her crazy-rich estranged husband. The hilariously convoluted and bizarre plan she has dreamed up to take her revenge is to retool Isabel Ascendant, a snooty Victorian drawing-room drama that’s been packing the historic London theater that’s part of her husband’s media empire, into a celebration of (again, straight) womanly lust. Maxandra’s generically adorable tween daughter Zadie, played by Jemelia George, laments Isabel Ascendant’s “painfully misogynistic climax,” tipping us off that the climaxes to come will be neither misogynist nor painful.
Mike protests that he knows nothing about directing, but after two-and-a-quarter movies powered by little more than his easy charisma, hard-bodied work ethic, and naturally occurring leadership skills, we, again, know better. We also know that his oft-stated insistence that he’s given up dancing has about as much staying power as one of Rocky Balboa’s retirements. Mike/Tatum will always be lured back to this signature role, for the same reason Sly Stallone returned to his so many times: This is the character that uses his peculiar gifts as an actor and as a photographic object to their best and fullest effect.
Still, you wish Tatum would share the spotlight just a little. The crew of younger and, would you believe, even fitter dancers he and Maxandra recruit off the London streets aren’t given any lines, never mind names or personalities. (They’re actually cast members from various iterations of Magic Mike Live.) The end credits offer a photo of them all in a wide shot while individual names flash on screen, so we can’t even tell who’s who. It’s a weirdly ungenerous choice, given how often Soderbergh just stops the movie for half a minute or so to admire what strong, supple specimens each of these dudes are.
On that note, one of Last Dance’s too quickly dispensed with subplots involves Mike repurposing the dancers to spy on—and eventually, charm the daylights out of—Vicki Pepperdine (Edna Eaglebauer), who plays a local bureaucrat in charge of the theater district’s permitting. It’s a nice callback to the scene in Magic Mike XXL where the “Kings of Tampa,” Mike’s old crew, challenge Joe Manganiello’s Big Dick Ritchie to elicit a smile from a bored cashier. As with so many incidents from these movies, what sounds creepy and aggressive in description plays in the context of the film as something sweet and even generous. As Mike points out to one of his dancers, the name of the song, and indeed the game, is “Permission.” (It brings me no pleasure to report the Kings of Tampa rate only a Zoom cameo in Last Dance.)
For the film and the show-within-the-film’s splashy finale, Tatum at last strips down to a tight pair of boxer briefs and knee pads for a dance with a late-arriving partner (ballet dancer Kylie Shea) that occasionally threatens to turn into an MMA fight. (Indeed, Soderbergh and Tatum’s creative partnership began with 2011’s scrappy action flick, Haywire, built around then-MMA star Gina Carano.) If this Magic Mike seems just a little cleaner and safer than its predecessors, consider that Tatum is now the same age Matthew McConaughey was when he warned Mike in the 2012 original, “You aren’t getting any younger.” Let him have his knee pads, and his illusions.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Last Dance is that it ultimately opts for Pretty Woman-esque wish-fulfillment over the downbeat candor of the original Magic Mike. This three-quel is fun, but that skin flick was more than just skin deep.
Magic Mike’s Last Dance opens in theaters nationwide today, Feb. 10.