Franchise installments come with inevitable baggage, but Gregory Jacobs’s Magic Mike XXL plays like the party bus whose road was charitably paved. Magic Mike XXL isn’t so much a lesser movie than Magic Mike as it is a looser one. Steven Soderbergh’s character-study-meets-microcosm-inquiry has been replaced with what he might have devised had he simply rested on his cast’s sculpted assets: a full-on, shameless buffet of male-stripper mania. Eager to get down to business, screenwriter Reid Carolin, who also penned the first film, swiftly writes out Matthew McConaughey’s Dallas and Alex Pettyfer’s Adam in one soapy dialogue exchange, which mentions the duo skipping town and stripping overseas. That leaves remaining beefcakes Ken (Matt Bomer), Tarzan (Kevin Nash), Tito (Adam Rodriguez), and Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello) as self-doubting crew members without a proper pilot, and keen to bring back Mike (Channing Tatum), who’s struggling to maintain a tamer life that lets him keep his shirt on. Thanks to little more than a spark-inducing, garage-set gyrating session (to the tune of his signature track, Ginuwine’s “Pony”), Mike gets his groove back and rejoins the group—despite grudges held by gents like Ken who hate that he left the party.
From there, Magic Mike XXL becomes a film infectiously determined to have fun, and one that serves a bevy of demographics with surprising balance. Taking the form of a one-last-ride road movie, with the final destination of Myrtle Beach’s annual stripper expo, the sequel is unmistakably bro-ish. (Much of the crew’s banter involves boosting each other’s confidence as “male entertainers,” and muscle-bound Manganiello, specifically, finally sheds his self-doubt—and shirt—in a hilarious scene that sees him seduce a quickie-mart cashier with the aid of Cheetos, bottled water, and a little Backstreet Boys.) There’s a notable lack of queer panic or condescension in these intimate, studly scenes, and even a pit-stop at a divey drag show—which, to invoke Rupaul-ese, prompts each man to sissy his walk—fits in rather seamlessly, doubling as evidence that the movie knows its market(s). The self-proclaimed “Kings of Tampa” pass their pleasure along to more mature women too, spending one fateful night at the home of Zoe (Amber Heard), Mike’s new love interest, whose mother (Andie McDowell) and her friends comprise a clan of sexually neglected MILFs. Of the film’s many detours, this one might be the most satisfying, from Richie’s discovery of a woman who can manage his member to the sly, unspoken acknowledgment of older women getting raw deals in the male-dominated entertainment biz.
In fact, apart from Tatum’s uncanny, waist-winding physicality, Magic Mike XXL’s key weapon is its commitment to empowering women, on screen and off. While the marble-cut male characters’ performances may largely be anchored to boosting their egos, the movie convincingly argues that they’re also about making their (mainly) female audiences feel worshipped, if only for the duration of, say, Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer.” This theme truly blooms when the boys roll through the South and make contact with Rome (Jada Pinkett Smith), a woman from Mike’s past who runs a pseudo-bordello for a primarily black clientele—women who are validated in myriad ways, be it a lap dance from a familiar-looking hardbody (Michael Strahan) or a serenade from a slinky crooner (Donald Glover) who caters lyrics to personal interests. With all of this, Magic Mike XXL never takes itself so seriously as to pretend it’s thrusting its way through some glass ceiling, and even as it commendably puts women on a pedestal (the finale features hundreds of screaming female extras, all of them regarded like, as Rome puts it, “queens”), it doesn’t affect a cocksure strut. Jacobs knows he’s not Soderbergh, and his movie knows its overall goal is a mix of fun and frivolity. But when the shrewd and welcome bit of feminism does sneak in, it’s like the film’s been raining dollars, then slips you a 20.