Thursday, July 2, 2015

It's Raining Men: "Magic Mike XXL" threadbare but a fun, laid-back party

Magic Mike XXL (2015)
115 min., rated R.

"Magic Mike XXL" delivers more of what straight women and gay men were probably expecting in "Magic Mike." Having been inspired by star Channing Tatum's own experience as a male stripper before the birth of his acting career, director Steven Soderbergh's 2012 film actually had thoughtful substance to go along with its eye candy of clothes-ripping performances, six-pack abs and pelvic-thrusting. This time, Soderbergh hands the directorial reins over to longtime assistant director Gregory Jacobs (2007's "Wind Chill") but still serves as cinematographer under his actual name and not pseudonym Peter Andrews. The core male cast returns (except for Matthew McConaughey and Alex Pettyfer) to work from another script by screenwriter Reid Carolin it's thinner than a G-string but entertaining in an episodic road-trip sort of way. Where the first film was more of an authentic expose of the male-stripping culture, this likable lunk of a sequel is more of a head-clearing vacation. You might as well give in.

At the end of "Magic Mike," Mike Lane (Channing Tatum) walked out on Tampa club Xquisite, leaving behind oily owner Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), inexperienced protégé Adam/"The Kid" (Alex Pettyfer), and the rest of his co-workers. He would eventually settle down with Adam's older sister Brooke (Cody Horn) and pursue his real dreams of being an entrepreneur. Three years after upstarting his own custom-furniture business, Mike rethinks hanging up his G-string. Egged on by fellow male strippers—excuse me, "male entertainers"—Ken (Matt Bomer), Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello), Tito (Adam Rodriguez), and Tarzan (Kevin Nash), he decides to get back into the game and get on a frozen-yogurt bus with his Kings of Tampa for "one last ride." The five of them, along with MC/driver Tobias (Gabriel Iglesias), are bound for a male-stripper convention in Myrtle Beach, S.C., but make a few pit stops along the way. Does Mike have any magic left in him?

That's really all for story, but "Magic Mike XXL" leaves the darker subtext in exchange for a looser, more-aimless structure and laid-back pacing of a summery, shaggy road movie. The guys "vogue" on stage at a Jacksonville drag bar and party on the beach all night with plenty of Molly to go around; Mike has a flirtatious encounter with indifferent photographer/stripper Zoe (Amber Heard); they meet Mike's ex-flame, Rome (Jada Pinkett Smith), and her private pleasure club Domina in a Savannah mansion (including Donald Glover and Michael Strahan as strippers); and then end up visiting a Charleston house full of sexually starved divorcees (led by Andie MacDowell). This may be the kind of contrived, threadbare sequel that gets made because no one can turn down male-stripper abs, not because there was more story to tell. Mike and his pectacular buddies find themselves pretty much back in the places they were at the beginning of the first film, besides having seen Dallas and Adam leave them all for Macau. There is little conflict and only very small character arcs, but that doesn't keep it from being a good fun time with an appeal all its own.

From the opening in Mike's woodshop, cued to Ginuwine's "Pony," the film makes a credible case for a sequel, as his magical skills as a dancer are not lost. It's like riding a bike for him. Channing Tatum continues to be an effortlessly charismatic presence with impressive moves and gets to show a goofier side in the role of Mike. Mike's pals were mostly two-dimensional in the first film, but they have more screen time and more to do this time around as characters, particularly the piercingly blue-eyed Matt Bomer's Ken and the ultra-ripped Joe Manganiello's Big Dick Richie. Ken has gone new-agey by practicing reiki and turns to singing for his new routine. Richie, who suffers from a five-month dry spell in the bedroom, also learns to change up his routine for something more personal, getting away from the old-hat fireman act. In the one of the film's major highlights, Manganiello absolutely sells a very funny impromptu striptease, inspiredly set to the Backstreet Boys' "I Want It That Way," in a convenience store as a dare to make the bored clerk crack a smile. This is the second summer sequel where the first film's love interest is written out (Mila Kunis was MIA in "Ted 2"). With Cody Horn's Brooke long gone after a failed marriage proposal, Mike finds a new soul mate in Zoe. The underwritten role only allows Zoe to tell Mike how she's a "drag queen on the inside," eat red velvet cake, and be given the lap dance of her life, but the alluring Amber Heard never fails to captivate, and she and Tatum never force a charming chemistry. Jada Pinkett Smith is dynamite as Rome, commanding the room as the Kings of Tampa's fiercely magnetic emcee, and Elizabeth Banks steals her few scenes as Paris, the straight-shooting host of the convention.

Whereas Soderbergh stripped some of the sexiness of the guys' job as a bleak cautionary tale, "Magic Mike XXL" celebrates it as a playful, titillating fantasy to ogle the entourage of beefcakes shaking their groove things. The dance routines are longer, flashier, and even more intoxicating. In fact, in relation to the former, the last half-hour at the Myrtle Beach convention is exactly like being at a bachelorette party, complete with six routines from each man. Tarzan's painting and Tito's frozen-yogurt acts, as well as Ken's singing, are fun to watch but less memorable than Richie's faux-wedding-turned-sex-swing routine, seductively set to Nine Inch Nails' "Closer." The steamiest and most energetic show-stopper, though, is Mike and Malik's (Stephen "tWitch" Boss) lap dance, in the style of the Marx Brothers' mirror trick. With Steven Soderbergh back to shooting, the film still looks and feels like the first film with its steamy, neon-colored Florida milieu, despite the location change-up. Zoe and Mike's meet-cute exchange on a beach interestingly uses natural lighting at night, and Soderbergh does not fail to make every other frame look stylish and sultry. If all you crave are the male-stripping goods, this sequel surely makes it rain, although many will still have to be patient during the casually mundane, less-tight conversation in between the bump-and-grind set-pieces. In spite of oneself, the raining men are enough incentive to keep "Magic Mike XXL" watchable and get those watching hot and bothered.

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