When an unassuming little 2012 fantasy about hunky male strippers is parlayed into a multi-installment franchise across more than a decade, we are at a tipping point with American movie consumerism. While such box office pursuit may be de rigueur for the junk food superhero pictures dominating multiplexes these days, for a filmmaker of Steven Soderberg’s stature it seems, well, impolite to apply his gifts toward the half-hearted return that is Magic Mike’s Last Dance.
Perhaps the filmmaker regards veteran exotic dancer Mike Lane (originally conceived from Channing Tatum’s own experiences prior to movie acting) as an actual superhero of his own making. Yet in their third and purported final outing (likely due to tepid box office rather than the title’s suggested finality) neither filmmaker nor star can find anything interesting thing to say about their character or his world.
Instead, with writer Reid Carolin, they deliver a straight-faced piece of shopworn formula minus knowing; a venerable plot from Hollywood’s Golden Age recycled with wan investment. It is a sum of its parts experience, but for a movie about male strippers, those parts are not what one might expect. Instead, we get a “Hey, let’s put on a show!” tale that would have been old hat even to Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney.
This time around, retired “Magic” Mike Lane (Tatum) is now toiling as a catering bartender for wealthy, one percenter Miami cocktail events. While he claims to have given up the dance (“I don’t do that anymore”), after serving drinks at a posh bayside charity event sponsored by alluring Maksandra “Max” Mendoza (Hayek), born entertainer Mike—like Michael Corleone bemoaning how “they keep pulling me back in!”—consents to at $6,000 lap dance for the uber-rich, soon-to-be divorced patron.
This dance, exhilarating in its choreography and athletic eroticism, is genuinely rousing to watch; it has the heat of a great movie love scene. Say what you will, but Tatum is the only actor today who could likely pull it off. And Hayek, herself having memorably delivered a supremely erotic whirl in Robert Rodriguez’s 1996 From Dusk ‘til Dawn, is a great match. As they tear up the room—furniture, windows, walls—mostly clothed, their carnal g-force reminds us of another era, one before American movies abandoned grown up intimacy in favor of infantilized adolescent hijinks. In today’s studio films, the rare adult moments, now measured and inspected for “safety” by intimacy coordinators, possess no such heat or abandon.
This early promise is never quite equaled across a film that finds Tatum’s Mike, the former Tampa furniture-maker who earned his living as a stripper in a for-women-only club, headed across the pond and to, of all places, London’s theater district, where Max has the silly notion to offer the gifted dancer a job—as a bigtime theater director in a historic playhouse Max is set to obtain in her divorce settlement from her wealthy, philandering hubby. Come again? Eschewing obvious attraction in lieu of a business arrangement, Mike agrees to choreograph a new, eclectic male revue (apparently London has never seen anything like it). The bulk of the film’s midsection charts the refashioning of a primly patriarchal period play—something called Isabel Ascendant—into a ribald new reinvention. That drawing room play, about a woman forced to choose between two suitors, features a breakout turn from a young actress named Juliette Motamed, who really delivers the goods in the film’s final stretches.
This is an immediate miscalculation, failing to capitalize on the Magic Mike series’ raison d’être, star Tatum’s natural gifts, giving him little in the way of dance. Instead, he auditions (in a sequence right out of any 80s dance movie) and mentors the new troupe, rarely given the showcase to do his stuff, something the first two films—2012’s Magic Mike and its solid 2015 sequel Magic Mike XXL—effectively exploited (along with the moves of costars Matt Bomer and Joe Mangianello, appearing this time briefly over Zoom).
The bulk of the film’s midsection involves a push-pull between Mike and Max, an awkwardly solemn voice over from Max’s sophisticated, adopted teen daughter (Jamelia George), writing a book on the transformative power of dance; a dryly comic manservant (Ayub Khan Din) who sees and knows all; and, of course, bureaucratic baddies, clutching clipboards while storming into rehearsals threating to close the show. Here, that bureaucrat is a woman (Vicki Pepperdine) not immune to the male dancer’s wiles.
None of this stops the film from being often entertaining courtesy of the woman at its center, a galvanic Salma Hayek—a last minute replacement for original lead Thandiwe Newton—giving one of her three best movie performance after Frida and Beatriz at Dinner. Hayek, who cut her young thespian teeth as a big star in Mexico’s wildly histrionic telenovelas, knows well how to class up a soap opera, and turns out to be the film’s vivid ace in the hole; you simply cannot stop looking at her.
Hayek’s Max is interesting enough to carry her own film, a flawed and insecure woman of volatility and high style, dominating every room she enters, never looking less than fabulously assembled. This sheen hides a fractured person afraid to admit her growing love for Mike, a less than effective mother and a woman unable to accomplish anything in her life beyond “the first act.” The picture’s second half affords Hayek three well-written scenes—an impetuous kiss in a car’s backseat; a fear-of-risk confessional; and the old standby of a rain-drenched lovers’ argument.
In a movie about little more than launching a big show, the screenplay tosses off lines about romantic consent, socioeconomic inequality and riffs on how “the law does not apply in entrenched male power structures.” None of these topics are important to the story, which is so simple it could fit on a postage stamp.
Yet the big finale is undeniably fun in its splashy, evocative, joy of dance way, incorporating a multitude of styles from classical to hip hop to freestyle and culminating in a spectacular, deliver-the-film sequence featuring Tatum and ballerina Kylie Shea in an sensual, superbly photographed (by DP Soderbergh) art-life approximation—Mike transforms his rain-soaked argument with Max into a wildly physical set piece involving torrents of water and a sort of poetic agility that must truly be seen. Max, who early in the film compliments Mike that he “moves like water,” is gobsmacked, and so are we.
The picture needed more of this dazzle. Magic Mike’s Last Dance isn’t a bad film, just an overall routine and uninspired one struggling to measure up to its bookend high points, despite Hayek’s best efforts.
2 1/2 stars for the film
3 1/2 for Hayek