Director: Steven Soderbergh
Stars: Salma Hayek Pinault, Channing Tatum, Kylie Shea
One of the most glaringly unwritten pieces on here is the missing Why I Love… essay addressing Gregory Jacobs’ 2015 feature Magic Mike XXL, the improbable sequel that thrusted its way into so many critics’… hearts, busting onto end-of-year lists and finding space in David Ehrlich’s incredible video countdown alongside that year’s established big hitters like Mad Max: Fury Road and Carol. A freewheeling road trip movie, it blew off the self-seriousness of Soderbergh’s first film and took a blissed-out journey into pure pleasure and the peaks of positive masculinity (such a thing exists!). It is also – quite seriously – one of the best lit and shot movies of the past decade. Jacobs has long been part of Soderbergh’s recurring company, serving as a producer and AD, but his emergence as a director on XXL was nothing short of showstopping. Aside from a forgotten Emily Blunt thriller some ten years prior, it remains his only solo directing credit.
Soderbergh’s return to the Magic Mike series comes off the back of a late-career high. Last year’s Kimi was a nimble little tech-thriller that gave Zoë Kravitz the kind of central turn her career’s been missing. Such good form boded well for this belated capper to the MM trilogy. As some readers may be aware, the reception from those same critics that adored XXL has been notably muted. Disappointment – even heartbreak – has been mentioned. The picture being painted, then, is that these movies rock so long as Jacobs has the (pony’s) reigns.
It isn’t as dire as all that. Granted, Magic Mike’s Last Dance suffers some diabolically bad voiceover narration (from a child, no less), and the bromantic camaraderie of the halcyon days of XXL is in desperately short supply. But there are different concerns at the centre of this installment, which still shows flashes of the same feel-great energy, especially whenever Channing Tatum turns on the charm.
We’re in a post-pandemic world and Mike Lane’s carpentry business has been wiped out. He’s back to being part of the ol’ gigging economy, but these days that mainly means tending bar for rich folks. One event sees him cross paths with depressed divorcee Maxandra (Salma Hayek Pinault) who, upon hearing of his reputation, offers him $6,000 for one… last… dance.
Mike impresses greatly – it’s arguably the sexiest sequence in the series – and Max rewards him with another offer; a mysterious gig in London, though she plays coy with specifics. With bristling chemistry between them and nothing better to fill his time, Mike acquiesces… and finds himself in over his head, tasked with reinvigorating a staid production of a chaste play. Max’s intention is to stick it to her ex husband who has gifted her the theatre, but her belief in Mike’s talents is genuine. He rocked her waters and she wants the same for her punters.
Soderbergh resists the urge to touch us down with The Clash’s “London Calling”, but Last Dance succumbs to all the other usual touristy flashes before becoming wholly disinterested in the English capital. Max has a reputation for being all first-act with no follow-through and, for a while, the movie teeters toward the same downfall. The mid-section is a little pedestrian. Max’s insistence that the two of them put the kibosh to any sexual liaison between them feels like a missed opportunity to keep the horniness level high, while other elements garner dubious screen time. Max’s typically precocious daughter Zadie (Jemelia George; the one tasked with those voice overs) is a particular case in point.
Pulling a show together with Max’s help, Mike drafts in the best dancers he can find, but none of them are provided names, let alone characters. After the surprisingly warm work at the heart of XXL to flesh-out it’s fleshsacks, this seems like a significant oversight. Last Dance is more interested in it’s conventional romance narrative and the middling drama of whether or not the show will go on.
As sexless as the centre of the movie is, there’s still just enough gas in the tank to get us to the (decidedly wet) payoff. Ayub Khan-Din acquits himself pleasingly as Max’s brusque butler Victor, and there’s a welcome aside surrounding a joyless bureaucrat (Vicki Pepperdine) who needs a little spice returned to her life.
Last Dance drops the ‘male entertainer’ euphemism and plumps squarely for describing its performance art as ‘stripping’, yet Mike’s final show is more of a narrative dance piece, aided to a significant degree by Kylie Shea’s unnamed ballerina. She and Mike bring the house down, though it might’ve been more electric if Hayek Pinault had made it onto that stage, considering the frisson between her and Tatum early on. This may have been a byproduct of production, however (Hayek Pinault was drafted in late as a replacement for Thandiwe Newton, and this likely led to some tweaking of the material to remain on schedule).
Come the end there’s a mild sense that what’s really being sold here isn’t female desire and empowerment but tickets to the Magic Mike live show (heard good things!) – and there’s a stilted moment right before the final curtain falls (on yet more of that godawful narration) – but for the most part Last Dance coasts by on the charm of its leads and the strength of Tatum’s dancing (even if we’re denied it for long, long stretches). No, the ineffable magic of XXL isn’t much in evidence – nor the swoon-worthy cinematography – but Soderbergh knows how to shoot a film, injecting energy where needed and occasionally where it’s not expected.
Calling a picture fine is very much the definition of damning with faint praise, but things could be a whole lot worse. And at least Last Dance doesn’t take itself as seriously as that McConaughey-driven first flick (again, fine, but little more). The little raunch we’re treated to at the top of the picture is still sexier than all of Fifty Shades combined. If only there was a little more follow-through before the happy ending.