The Substance-Free ‘Magic Mike XXL’ Is a Giddy, Cheerful Encore to a Much Better Film

When is a Steven Soderbergh movie not a Steven Soderbergh movie? That’s the question asked by Magic Mike XXL, the new sequel to Soderbergh’s 2012 hit and the first film in which he’s been a major player since his “retirement” the following year. He doesn’t direct this time around — but he’s the cinematographer (under his usual pseudonym, Peter Andrews), and the editor (under his usual pseudonym, Mary Ann Bernard), and the executive producer (under his own name). And the director is Gregory Jacobs, Soderbergh’s assistant director on pretty much everything he’s done since his third film, King of the Hill. So if Soderbergh wasn’t calling the shots, he was certainly involved enough in the production that some will wonder — probably unfairly — how much actual directing Jacobs did. But if the film looks and moves like a Soderbergh movie, it has a different feel than the original; it’s lighter, for good and ill, an encore without much of an agenda. Magic Mike ended with Foreigner’s “Feels Like the First Time,” and it seems like they missed an opportunity by not closing MM XXL with “Nothin’ But a Good Time.”

If Soderbergh’s original — inspired by the “male entertainer” days of star/producer Channing Tatum — seemed a throwback to the Tom Cruise movies of the ‘80s (I’m thinking specifically of movies like Cocktail, Top Gun, The Color of Money, and Days of Thunder, whose basic premises were all: “Tom Cruise is the world’s best _____”), XXL most closely recalls a heist movie, in which a gang of thieves gets back together for one last score. In fact, it bears an uncanny resemblance to Soderbergh’s own (divisive) 2004 film Ocean’s 12, reassembling the old crew under sketchy auspices for a more leisurely and occasionally expectation-confounding follow-up.

Three years have passed. We find Mike (Tatum) doing what he’d always wanted to do, designing that goofy goddamn custom furniture, but he’s not having much fun living his dream; he’s split with Brooke, and the business seems a lot of work for little reward. So when his old stripper crew — conveniently minus Matthew McConaughy (who reportedly passed) and Alex Pettyfer (who’s reportedly a pain in the ass) — cruises through town, out for “one last fuckin’ ride” on their way to the annual “Stripping Convention” in Myrtle Beach, Mike can’t resist coming along.

Tatum’s first big dance scene comes as he’s contemplating this decision; while he’s working in his shop, Ginuwine’s “Pony” — his show-stopper in the first film — pops up on Spotify, and he can’t resist getting into his old groove. It’s a great scene, and not just for the ingenious way he incorporates the settings and props into the routine (which recalls, no kidding, Fred Aistaire), or for the irresistible way he gives in to the temptation, but for the crowd-pleasing way the scene is shot and cut.

But then again, crowd-pleasing is the explicitly stated subject of Magic Mike XXL, in which Donald Glover summarizes their profession thus: “All we gotta do is ask ‘em what they want… We’re like healers.” This comes shortly after their visit to an exclusive, subscription-based “country club” strip estate, run by Rome (Jada Pinkett Smith, stealing the movie), who strolls from room to room making pronouncements like, “There’s always a queen who must be reminded of how beautiful she is.”

And perhaps that attitude is the key to the almost miraculous way that Jacobs, as Soderbergh did the first time around, manages to make these overtly sexual dance scenes so simultaneously filthy and good-natured. Maybe we’re just not used to seeing a major motion picture that’s so cheerfully sex-positive; maybe the female gaze is just new enough to seem refreshing rather than perverse; maybe it’s the way the dancers (and, by extension, the movie) are so merrily inclusive, focusing their attention on women of all shapes, sizes, and colors.

But if there’s a scene that holds the key to the movie, it comes near the end, at the conclusion of the Mickey-and-Judy “let’s put on a show” Myrtle Beach performance, when Mike finally gets to do his thing for Zoe (Amber Heard), whom he’s intersected and flirted with throughout the trip. As a cinematographer and editor on both films, Soderbergh tends to favor full-body compositions; in the style of old musicals, he lets the dancers dazzle us, rather than burying their athleticism in close-ups and cuts. Yet in the middle of Mike’s dance/clothed foreplay with Zoe, for just a few bars, the camera goes in tight, lingering on their faces — particularly hers, which registers a mixture of delight and disbelief. At that moment, she’s the surrogate for the audience (in that room, and in the theater), and that reaction is, when you get down to it, what these movies are really about.

Magic Mike XXL has its problems; it drags a bit, from time to time, and the continued insistence that not one of these guys would be gay or even bi draws, a bit too explicitly, a line of sexuality that even a movie as Family-friendly as this one dares not cross. And much of the fascinating subtext — economic desperation, fluid gender roles, etc. — that made the first film more than a skin show has been jettisoned. What we’re left with is a road movie, a playful comedy, and a victory lap. I didn’t mind; it seems safe to bet that anyone buying a ticket probably won’t either.

Magic Mike XXL is out tomorrow.