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Film Review: Magic Mike XXL

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★★☆☆

Magic Mike was one of the best movies of 2012. It was an intelligent, socially intuitive, occasionally dark character study of a man questioning his life choices. It was about strippers, but there was a relatively tiny amount of time spent showing us their activities on screen.

This is important: it was about a man who worked as a stripper. But wasn’t about stripping. This became a problem for some viewers, who were sold (by Warner Bros in the US and Lionsgate in the UK) a film that didn’t match up to the way it was marketed. Magic Mike was very clearly advertised as a fun night out, with ads targeted at women and gay men. It promised a hunk-fest of abs and ass. No wonder people were disappointed when it turned out the movie boasted brain cells rather than penises. In my opinion, Magic Mike showed director (and producer and cinematographer and editor) Steven Soderbergh at his best and most assured, and to see people slate it because it was different to what they thought they were getting was very frustrating.

Now, wind forwards three years, and you have the sequel, Magic Mike XXL. New director Gregory Jacobs has retooled the story of the disenchanted stripper (well played by Channing Tatum) so it appeals to those who found the first movie that little bit too intellectually rigorous. He and screenwriter Reid Carolin have thrown out all the things they feel they no longer need (such as plot, characterisation, depth, a conscience, a script) and replaced it with more abs, more near-naked men, more dance routines. This isn’t Magic Mike XXL. This is Magic Mike-Light.

In some ways, XXL is quite breathtaking in its desperation to pander to those demanding entertainment that is vacuous, lazy and devoid of charm. Essentially what you have here is a cash-register that doesn’t care about story or talent; just money, money, money. The happy-ever-after Mike gets at the end of the 2012 movie is bulldozed over almost immediately. Goodbye his attempts to start a new life, goodbye life-partner, goodbye following his dreams. If Magic Mike’s message was ‘there’s more to life than stripping’, Magic Mike XXL’s message is ‘everything apart from stripping is boring, so let’s get naked’. The u-turn on the first movie’s refreshingly conservative attitude almost gives you whiplash.

The plot is wafer-thin. Mike decides to go back to stripping and he and the guys perform in a big show at the end. That’s it. In between they take their clothes off a lot whilst women ogle them. The first movie was interested in interrogating the problematic and sleazy side to this way of life. This movie couldn’t give a fuck. In the end, the closest thing XXL resembles is one of the later Saw sequels, where the spectacle and obsession with human flesh is ramped up to such insane heights it becomes both tedious and abhorrent.

The cautionary aspects of the first movie are not only thrown out, they are trampled on with an almost pernicious sense of glee. For example, the world of drug taking and dealing is shown to have serious consequences in Soderbergh’s film. Here hard drug use is apparently one big laugh. Drug driving is portrayed as a trivial bit of fun you can all laugh about later, even when you crash the car you’re driving. I’d love to know what the families and friends of victims who have been killed by drug drivers think of this movie.

Some of the darker and more unsettling characters have been rehabilitated, especially Matt Bomer’s character, who now has all the menace of a marshmallow. Apart from being a bit disgruntled Mike is back in the stripping business, he seems to be all sweetness and smiles. It’s even indicated he is on the verge of falling for another guy (he was married to a woman in the first movie), though this potential gay relationship is never properly unpacked and becomes one of many unresolved and underdeveloped plot-strands at the end of the movie. In spite of the inflated running time, XXL rushes its conclusion, cutting to credits suddenly when you don’t expect it, making it clear that once the stripping is done this film is wholly uninterested in fulfilling any half-hearted aspirations for a convincing narrative.

To end on something of a positive note, a mention must go to two people. First, Andie MacDowell. She handles a character who, in a lesser actor’s hands, would have come across as tacky and clichéd. She makes her brief appearance feel fresh and energetic and has a terrific accent to go with it. Her presence in itself feels like a reference to (person number two) Steven Soderbergh, who cast her in the film that made his name: the 1989 Palme d'Or winning drama Sex, Lies and Videotape.

Soderbergh stays onboard in part with XXL, with his most notable contribution as the film’s cinematographer. Though the images he contributes here are much more naturalistic than the far-out yellow-tinge he drenched his first movie in, it’s still clear he is passionate about doing things with light and colour that go beyond the boundaries of what we expect to see on screen. If anyone’s interested in this kind of thing, I urge you to see what he does (using the same camera, the Red Dragon) on his Cinemax TV series The Knick. He is one of the most exciting cinematographers working in the industry today. If only the rest of XXL was as intriguing, involving and intelligent as the images that try to bring it to life.

Magic Mike XXL is in cinemas from 3 July, Certificate 15. Watch the trailer below:

 




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