When we were first delivered the premise for Steven Soderbergh's 2012 film 'Magic Mike', it was hard not to get a bit excited. A film about male strippers based on star Channing Tatum's own experiences from one of the best filmmakers in the world seemed like such a strange and tantalising opportunity. The film itself turned out to be far more thematically thoughtful than we expected, mixing its set pieces with a subtle commentary on economic struggle and class divide, but something about it clearly worked. This then led to the tremendous surprise of 'Magic Mike XXL' in 2015, an exuberant and delicious crowd-pleaser that took the classic Hollywood musical structure and replaced the songs with strip-teases. It was a film built for no other purpose than to be enjoyed, and in turn, celebrated female sexuality and desire. This exciting trajectory, and the build in reputation for 'XXL' since its release, were cause for excitement when Soderbergh announced his return to the series with 'Magic Mike's Last Dance', along with Tatum and screen legend Salma Hayek. Just as was the case in 2012, it was hard not to get a bit excited for what Mike had in store for us this time.
This time around, with the economic toll of the pandemic essentially gutting his furniture business, Mike (Tatum) is forced to work as a bartender. While working the bar at a fundraiser, he catches the eye of rich socialite Maxandra Mendoza (Hayek), who becomes aware of his past as a stripper and pays him to dance for her. After a heated night, Max makes Mike an offer - fly with her to London for a month for a job she has for him. When he arrives, he is told that Max wants him to redirect the stodgy period drama currently occupying the London theatre she has recently acquired through the separation with her husband. They search for the best male dancers they can find and begin to secretly inject the play with striptease dance sequences. As they do, Mike and Max weather the complications of their tumultuous working and romantic relationship, the latter still wrestling with the fallout of her last failed relationship.
I'm just going to cut right to the chase (something the film itself is almost incapable of doing) - in almost every aspect, 'Magic Mike's Last Dance' is a crushing disappointment. Rather than building on the playful joy or the celebration of female pleasure established in the previous films, Soderbergh and screenwriter Reid Carolin (who wrote both of the previous films) opt for a convoluted plot where the dancing feels almost like an afterthought, with all the franchise's goofy, memorable characters stripped away and replaced with essentially nothing. Story isn't the drawcard of these films, but at least the other films had a simple enough premise on which to hang the spectacle of the dance sequences. Mike and Max's relationship, and the whole gambit of reimagining the play as an expression of female pleasure, spins out of control relatively quickly, and it's hard to tell if the problem is too many ideas not anchored by anything or that Soderbergh just got bored of it. We're faced with excruciatingly long dialogue scenes where ideas spin round and round in circles, while actors muddle through empty dialogue and wade around in endless dead space. There's so little charm to any of these characters, even Mike, making it basically impossible to feel anything for them or become invested in their relationships.
SWITCH: 'MAGIC MIKE'S LAST DANCE' TRAILER
It's all the more frustrating when the central cast of goofy characters were what made 'Magic Mike' and 'XXL' so charming in the first place, and this connects to one of the many fundamental problems with 'Last Dance'. It seems to go out of its way to not be as goofy or silly or fun as the other films, without realising that, not only is the goofy fun the reason we watched them, but that goofiness and fun are intrinsic to why stripping as entertainment and performance is so wonderful to watch in the first place. At one point, Mike instructs the new dancers that they need to ask permission from the women they dance for, establish a connection and consent, but the other exchange you make is that this is all a bit silly and just to enjoy it. So little of 'Last Dance' asks you to have fun or offers you a reason to want to. And how could you when, rather than watching hot men move their bodies in thrilling, athletic, arousing and preposterous ways, we instead have aimless scenes of characters um-ing and ah-ing about what they want or don't want or want to say but don't want to say or whatever the hell it was that was happening through most of this film.
When those dance sequences do come, and you start to get excited that this boring mess might finally find a pulse, you're instead met with even greater disappointment. None of them work - not a single one - and for a number of reasons. The first is that they are often sexual but not sexy. One of the joys of the dances in the previous films was the way they played with expectation and anticipation, but in this instance, these are quickly bypassed in favour of satisfaction. You feel as if you've been placed in the position of sleazy voyeur rather than in on the action, and this brings me to my next criticism. Where the stripteases in the previous films felt like they were happening to you, that you were a participant given permission to enjoy yourself, here they happen at you, placing us in the position of distant observer. Even when the camera captures all the dancers in striking lighting that shows off every muscle, even when we're in close on them sliding over their audience's bodies, it all still feels weirdly distant, as if we're looking through a lens at something we aren't allowed to touch. The intimacy with the dancers has been lost, both because there's something offputting about the way they are shot but mostly because we don't know anything about them. The camera can't replicate that intimacy that comes from two people looking into each others' eyes and that exchange of permission, but the other films overcame this by introducing each of the dancers to us as characters. Not a single one of the dancers in this film is named and almost none of them is given even a shred of backstory, so how on earth are we supposed to connect with the experiences of the dancers or the people they are dancing for? Perhaps this is because the filmmakers feel that their focus should be on the relationship between Mike and Max, but that relationship is so confusing as to be impenetrable. There's also a strange technical issue with the mixing of the film, where the diegetic nature of the music for the dance sequences is taken to such an extreme that it is being played through speakers within the world of the film and then through the speakers in the cinema. As a result, all the music is confined to the front channels and given a slight echo, with the rest of the sound design (including audience reactions) in the surround channels. The music is at a distance rather than enveloping us, so once again, these dances feel like something happening far away from us rather than to and around us. What should be the highlights of the film, these big moments of spectacle, end up feeling utterly perfunctory.
'Magic Mike's Last Dance' is a crushing disappointment. Rather than building on the playful joy or the celebration of female pleasure established in the previous films, Soderbergh and screenwriter Reid Carolin opt for a convoluted plot where the dancing feels almost like an afterthought.
Perhaps the biggest problem with 'Last Dance' though - and essentially the culmination of all my previous criticisms - is how utterly joyless a film it is. The commentary on women having permission to feel pleasure, the revelatory centrepiece of 'XXL', sounds hollow and empty here, because it ends up being nothing but words. This film doesn't give us permission to enjoy or celebrate these gorgeous male bodies, or the space to celebrate how these kinds of performances can be liberating for women, encouraging them to embrace their desires and their power as sexual beings. Saying it isn't enough; the film itself needs to practice what it preaches. That moment again where Mike stresses the importance of asking permission stings all the harder when the film itself never gives us permission to look. I would go as far as to say that, deep down, I don't think it particularly cares whether we do or not. The joyful spectacle of these male strippers isn't its primary concern, but for the life of me, I cannot tell you what other concern it could possibly have. The one hope could be some kind of journey for Max to realise her potential as a powerful, single woman finally untethered from a dysfunctional relationship, but for a film with endless dialogue about female agency and empowerment, it spends a lot of time showing its female protagonist as an aimless mess pining after a man we barely see a connection with.
The conclusion I have to come to (and it pains me to say it) is that Soderbergh was not the right person to take on this film. His idiosyncratic vérité approach may have worked in the first film, but it doesn't here, especially after the more fantastical and bombastic direction Gregory Jacobs took the series in the second one. There's no spark to his direction, no wit or playfulness, and he never finds his way through the dense jungle of its convoluted plot. You don't get a sense of joy or fun in his direction or in how he approaches the dance sequences. Hell, even the moment when 'Pony' finally plays, the camera doesn't seem that interested. Perhaps that's the crux of it - we came to see a film about male strippers doing what they do best, dazzling us with their prowess and their amazing bodies, but the film itself isn't interested in male strippers doing what they do best. It almost feels like it's wrestling to be a different film, a more "serious" or "legitimate" film, but the result is a film with no character and no pulse, where the sweatiest thing is the premise itself.
Rather than swept up in the heat and spectacle of it all, 'Magic Mike's Last Dance' left me clammy and cold. This is a dull, joyless and boring film, convoluted and almost never sexy. As each minute passed, I found myself willing it to end quicker, but as disappointed as I was for myself as someone who had been excited to see this film, I was most disappointed for the dancers in it. Rather than celebrating their abilities, they exist as nameless bodies moving through space, with no stories to play and nothing distinct to differentiate them from one another. They are there to serve a narrative function in a film that never makes it clear what it has to say or even what that narrative really is. Whereas I can still remember, not just so many of the memorable moments in 'Magic Mike XXL', but the actual experience of being in a cinema watching it with a room full of boisterous people, 'Magic Mike's Last Dance' is already slipping from my memory. I suspect I might even be willing it to do so.