The original Magic Mike was an unexpected delight. Moviegoers bracing themselves for a Chippendales version of Showgirls were pleasantly surprised by a thoughtful and insightful drama about shouldering the burdens of manhood -- with lots of near-naked dancing, to be sure -- that took place on the surreal fringes of Florida's vacation economy. The sequel Magic Mike XXL is more commercial and lightweight than its predecessor, and it has no ontological ambitions deeper than serving up a feature-length rebuttal to the dad-bod phenomena. But Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly had nothing to say about the essential philosophical fabric of reality either, unless their exuberant body of work counts as Zen proof that it's lovely to "be here now." One generation's six-pack abs is another's top and tails -- and when a song on the radio reminds the now-retired Magic Mike (Channing Tatum) of his stripper past, he's inspired to put down his welding mask and execute a liquid-mercury hip-hop solo across every horizontal, vertical, and diagonal surface in his machine shop, a breathless virtuoso explosion that puts the topsy-turvy stateroom in Royal Wedding to shame.
Mike is in that machine shop because, three years ago, he left Tampa's Xquisite Strip Club to start a custom-furniture business. But news about his former emcee Dallas reconnects him with some of the other dancers: Tito (Adam Rodriguez), Tarzan (Kevin Nash), Ken (Matt Bomer), Tobias (Gabriel Iglesias), and Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello). For the same hazy reasons that Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney were always putting on a show in the old barn, they decide to pile into Tito's frozen-yogurt truck and take a road trip to Myrtle Beach, where they will display their craft for a seething horde of horny ladies at a male-stripper convention.
This sequel is missing most of what made the original special: Florida as an actual place instead of just an idea, an emotional reality to the characters, a genuine ear for the way men and women talk to each other (and what it sounds like when a conversation is all bantered out). But this movie is still rife with small moments of honesty, which outnumber the abundant scenes of flashy dance numbers. Steven Soderbergh isn't the director this time around -- that honor goes to Gregory Jacobs, Soderbergh's first-assistant director on other ensemble romps like Ocean's Eleven -- but he's a stealth participant as the cinematographer and editor; perhaps as a result, there are a number of scenes that have the minimalist look of a low-budget art film. This atypical musical feels like the offspring of Flashdance and Five Easy Pieces, and the scenes where it shows off its indie cred serve as an acerbic palate cleanser between the shamelessly lush dance numbers in which the men slither around, as boneless as a Chicken McNugget.
Is the dancing in this film sexy? Well, it's certainly remarkable, in the way that one marvels at the thundering muscle of a thoroughbred barreling down the track. What's more remarkable, however, are the small ecumenical touches injected into what's essentially a bro road movie. The men make a stop at a drag club and enter a voguing contest, assimilating the flailing, femme-y hallmarks of the style without mockery. They sing serenades to ladies and insist "my God is a she"; their only conquests represent acts of healing for women devalued by other men. The forces behind this film (including Tatum, who's also a producer) are canny enough hustlers not to denigrate the demographic symbolically showering them with ones, but even if Magic Mike XXL was designed to be catnip for beefcake aficionados, it still smells pretty sweet. Will audiences accept the uncomplicated thrills of a story that hangs on the conceit that a group of bodybuilders are roaming the country as an act of monastic devotion to the feminine divine? Hey, it's not like audiences were accused of overthinking all of the dinosaurs in that other movie.