‘Magic Mike’s Last Dance’ Slows It Down for a Bland Curtain Call

Back in 2012, director Steven Soderbergh released one of the decade’s great teases with the original “Magic Mike.” On the surface it looked like a rowdy male stripper movie, serving as a showcase for star Channing Tatum to show off his physique and impressive moves. The film itself, while indeed guiltily fun, was actually a darker-edged commentary on working class American life during the Great Recession. Mike (Tatum) dreamed of getting a loan for opening his own business, but the credit avenues were blocked and his only real income derived from stripping with a band of misfits, some who also dabbled in drug dealing. The 2015 sequel, “Magic Mike XXL,” not directed but photographed by Soderbergh, was a glossier road trip that culminated in a rather stunning set of dance numbers almost worthy of Bob Fosse. Now we get the third installment, “Magic Mike’s Last Dance,” where the original director is back, but the routine becomes a bland, surprisingly mundane exercise in rom-com clichés, without the jokes.

We’re back in Florida where Mike is now 40 and has lost his furniture business due to the pandemic. He gets by as a gig worker and we find him serving drinks at a fundraising event hosted by the very wealthy Maxandra Mendoza (Salma Hayek Pinault). A friend tips her off that Mike is also quite the dancer and she awkwardly offers him $6,000 for a lap dance. He most definitely delivers in the movie’s extended, erotic acrobatic opening number. The socialite, whose wealth derives from a crumbling marriage to an English media mogul, likes Mike a lot and offers him to join her in London. There, she will set him up as the new director of a theater she has yanked from her cheating husband during their separation. The place keeps staging the same outdated stuffy production, “Isabel Ascendant.” Maxandra wants to get revenge by letting Mike re-stage the show as a glorious showcase of male stripping that emphasizes a woman’s needs and dreams. 

Soderbergh is incapable of making a totally vacuous movie and so “Magic Mike’s Last Dance” has worthy themes at its core. It’s a shapeless attempt by screenwriter Read Carolin, who wrote the first two movies as well, to update the franchise into more than a veiled critique of capitalism. The aim here seems to be to turn this third installment into a feminist parable about a wealthy woman taking control and sending patriarchal norms to hell. It’s admirable to cast Hayek as the slightly older love interest for Tatum, but the movie never really explores the relationship with the depth, sharp comedy or emotional climax it deserves. Tatum and Hayek play their roles with too much low chemistry, never fulfilling the promise of the heated opening scenes. Instead, it’s a lot of scenes involving them sitting around London flats arguing about the show, agreeing to be chaste (why?) and Mike looking quietly uncomfortable among British snobs. Carolin and Soderbergh then try to frame it all with needless bits of absurdly YA novelistic voiceover by Maxandra’s daughter, Zadie (Jemelia George). The best supporting role belongs to Ayub Khan-Din as Victor, Maxandra’s butler, who keeps a watchful eye and dispenses refined insights.

Fans of the franchise will be surprised to learn there is not much dancing in “Magic Mike’s Last Dance.” The first two movies knew how to take energetic narrative breaks with memorable numbers, like Mike re-connecting with his onstage persona when his signature song, Ginuwine’s “Pony,” comes on as he works on furniture in his shop in “Magic Mike XXL.” Whether in the first film’s more indie set-ups or the sequel’s bombastic set pieces, the dancing sequences could become ecstatic celebrations of sensuality peppered with genuine comedy. In “Last Dance” we only get a montage of dance auditions as Mike casts his show, then when the curtain is raised on the big night, the ensuing numbers are about as exciting as what you get in docile movies like “Step Up” or “Save the Last Dance.” Suddenly “Magic Mike” has become prudish and shy. The new MC recruited for the spectacle, Hannah (Juliette Motamed), lacks the strength and sexual charge of Jada Pinkett Smith in the last movie, or the rugged ego of Matthew McConaughey in the original. 

Crucially absent is also the sense of camaraderie that made this concept fun to ride along with. In a too brief scene, Mike zooms with his old gang, Ken (Matt Bomer), Tito (Adam Rodriguez), Tarzan (Kevin Nash) and Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello), where we get that old banter full of joyous buddy absurdity. We enjoyed spending time with this sculpted crew because they were dreamers, trapped by commodifying their bodies, hoping to achieve a little something in a brutal economy. “Magic Mike’s Last Dance” never gives space to any of the other dancers in Mike’s production. We never get to know them, where they come from or what they hope to achieve. It might have been easier to gloss over had the comedy been more efficient and rowdy. No jokes truly land in this movie because it’s so constrained and timid. Salma Hayek is never allowed to let loose, because she’s instead reduced to giving speeches instead of creating a dynamic character. Soderbergh has featured excellent female characters full of such life, like Julia Roberts in “Erin Brockovich” or Zoë Kravitz in last year’s “Kimi.” Hayek’s socialite is too low key by comparison.

Despite the title, we can never know if “Magic Mike’s Last Dance” is indeed the curtain call on this franchise. Box office numbers are always the ultimate judge. What a versatile filmmaker like Soderbergh sought here is difficult to assess. Is it a case of a major director simply bored with the concept? Tatum, who famously conceived the first “Magic Mike” out of his own experiences as a male stripper, feels distant here as well, as if the material lacks the passion of something inspired from direct memories. Mike is no longer in his 30s, but he’s not done by any means and we can sense the vigor of a man still young enough to start some trouble. Hayek is also so youthful and driven we wish she would let loose. If the movie wants to tap into the current mood of dismissing the patriarchy and celebrating pleasure, it should do so full throttle. This is the kind of franchise that deserves to go out in a blaze of glory instead of a sleepy routine.

Magic Mike’s Last Dance” releases Feb. 10 in theaters nationwide.