Steven Soderbergh, the perennially subversive director who made his name with an ethereal, lo-fi film focused on the microcosmic interpersonal challenges of being a sexually liberated adult, has spent his career (and his retirement) delivering incisive explorations of the human condition as it is bound by our modernity. A visual auteur always finding new avenues to create dynamic and exciting filmic language to outline a balletic movement through existence, the path to 2012’s Magic Mike is as clear as anything. Frequently written off as cheap eye candy geared towards a hyperspecific audience, Soderbergh reveals himself to be much less interested in the act of male stripping as a binary vehicle for simple pleasure and far more interested in utilizing male stripping as a lens through which to view a country’s post-recession economic anxiety. The working class struggles to stay afloat, unable to pursue their dreams in a system designed to prevent them from succeeding. Pervasive masculine insecurity creates destructive relationships and harmful environments, coalescing in an implosion of interminable toxicity.
Conversely, 2015’s Magic Mike XXL (now directed by long-time Soderbergh producer Gregory Jacobs but still employing Soderbergh as a chief creative and visual author) forgoes the economic perils of a decaying America and instead focuses on the emotional liberation of movement, letting go of what once was bound by capital in favor of defining existence on your own terms. While the first film was a tense drama interspersed with the momentary bliss of dance, XXL is a laid-back road movie pushing towards the ultimate freedom found within its final act. Soderbergh may no longer be at the helm but it’s still fueled by the sexual openness that has defined his career since his debut, a warm undertone of granting everyone the space they need to be both vulnerable and honest with their desires. With such a stunning one-two punch of boldly crafted cinema using the beauty of movement to define the challenges of modern existence and emotional honesty, it’s an exciting proposition to see Soderbergh back in the director’s chair for Magic Mike’s Last Dance, to see Mike Lane’s journey through to the end with more enthralling direction and gloriously choreographed dance.
The Soderbergh film that could have been seems lost somewhere in between, all interest in anything truly resonant or impactful abandoned in its first minutes, when grating narration overtakes the film to explain that Mike (Channing Tatum, at his most dispassionate and uninterested throughout a majority of the film) has lost his business due to the economic impact of the pandemic and that he’s now scraping by as a Miami bartender. With his previous film Kimi (2022) so laser-focused on the technological anxiety and isolation caused by the pandemic, and existing in a franchise once holding great interest in the financial state of America as it affects the working class, it’s a frustrating decision to forego the actual narrative turmoil of the character we’ve become so familiar with. Instead, through a contrived setup, Mike gives a private dance to one-percenter Maxandra (Salma Hayek Pinault), who is so taken by his prowess that she invites him to live with her in London and put on a spectacular dance show for one night only in the theater she owns.
Before it even gets to London the film feels doomed, misunderstanding its own grounding when Mike’s first sensual dance sequence is edited as a hazy montage without any of the energetic reverence of the previous films, but the further the film slogs through its labored, plot laden disinterest, the more you yearn for the opening sequence to return – at least Mike is dancing. The film’s thematic crux relies entirely on the narration that constantly grinds the film to a halt, Maxandra’s daughter Zadie (Jemelia George, maybe the most engaged performance of the film) supposedly writing a book about the story of Max and Mike wherein she explains to the audience what dance means to humanity and how it expresses love and beauty (or, what the first two films expounded wordlessly through the power of Soderbergh’s dynamic lens).
Magic Mike’s Last Dance is an unending divergence, awash in contrived and obnoxious narrative that’s constantly driving at nothing while repeatedly taking trips in different directions hoping it will land on anything meaningful or resonant, but it is hopelessly unable. Mike is disconnected and maintains little to no arc throughout, finding a passion in directing his own show – but this passion is a development we’re scarcely allowed to see while the film mostly focuses on Max’s turmoil in divorcing her media mogul husband, a narrative so threadbare and conventional that it doesn’t even know how to firmly define her as a character. Mike’s former crew, the men we’ve become intimately familiar with, are relegated to a short Zoom call, replaced by a squad of nameless dancers that Mike recruits for his new show. Though outstanding dancers, by losing the emotional connection that once grounded the franchise in the reality of the characters outside of their stripping, the film becomes what it once eloquently subverted.
Though it manages to end on a genuinely spectacular dance choreographed with the reverence the series was once built on, everything around it does a spectacular job of weighing it down until it feels completely hollow. Supposedly an expressive vision of Mike and Max’s relationship, but their relationship has been so ill-defined and devoid of chemistry that it’s impossible to buy their relationship or Mike’s magnetic performance – this isn’t the beautiful sunset ending Mike deserves, it’s just an elevated retread of the ending of the first film, only now it’s been explained why it’s meaningful by a British child as it fades to black. The film has built so many extant narrative threads by this point that it has to constantly cut away from the dance itself, making its explosive finale a chaotic jumble of nonsense. Where the stunning finale of XXL was predicated on creating an open space for characters we were intimately familiar with to explore their own personalities through dance (and through the use of Nine Inch Nails), here we have no connection to either the dance itself or any of the performers, an empty void of meaningless movement (however well performed it may be) with an outdated soundtrack. A disappointing and misguided vision for Magic Mike’s final outing – maybe we should have left things basking in the glory of seaside fireworks, positive masculinity glowing like a successful heist showering in the mist of the Bellagio fountain.