Light-hearted 'Magic Mike XXL' sheds serious themes along with the clothes

Channing Tatum still charms as a 'male entertainer' in a less ambitious sequel to the 2012's hit

Supposedly the cheapest special effect available to a movie is a woman taking her top off. In 2012, Magic Mike proved that shirtless guys could also inspire audiences to make it rain. The comedy-drama about Channing Tatum's male stripper cost about $7 million and earned more than $100 million. The male gaze may be a pervasive force in culture, but the potential of the female gaze should not be ignored.

Many viewers went into Magic Mike to see Tatum and other guys in thongs dry-humping sorority girls on stage with "It's Raining Men" on the soundtrack. They may not have expected such pointed, downbeat themes about the distressed economy and the temptations of hedonism. The sequel, Magic Mike XXL, proves far less ambitious, offering basically the lusty, empty bachelorette party movie people may have wanted the first time.

Three years later, Tatum's Mike Lane is still retired from being a stripper — sorry, "male entertainer" — and struggling to get ahead in his custom furniture business. He gets a surprise call from his fellow dancers, the former "cock-rocking Kings of Tampa," and reunites with the likes of Ken (Matt Bomer) and Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello). With a few lines of dialogue, Magic Mike XXL writes out Matthew McConaughey's Dallas and the previous film's other main characters.

Mike's buddies are en route from Miami to a stripper convention in Myrtle Beach, for "one last ride" before they hang up their G-strings. Mike initially demurs coming with them, but later, while welding in his workshop, he hears Ginuwine's "Pony" on Spotify. As if against his will, Mike lapses into his hip-hop style bump-and-grind dance choreography while wearing a welder's mask. A former dancer, Tatum's B-boy moves are always arresting, and here he may be winking at Kevin Bacon's angry dance in the barn in Footloose.

So Mike and his pals end up road-tripping through the South in a food truck, bantering, bonding, taking drugs, and basically causing parties to break out wherever they go. It's like what an "Entourage" movie should be, with guys living life to the fullest without having to overcompensate to prove their masculinity: They're comfortable with each other's bodies, friendly to drag queens, and generally sensitive to women.

But the momentum stalls out as the story becomes more episodic. Mike encounters an old flame (Jada Pinkett Smith) who manages a Savannah ladies' club; a feisty cougar (Andie MacDowell) with a gaggle of friends; and a soft-spoken photographer (Amber Heard) he romances because she happens to be around, I guess. The lavish final number at Myrtle Beach is largely worth the wait, but it's not even part of competition: Magic Mike XXL has essentially nothing at stake.

Here, Tatum's essentially part of an ensemble. Mike's the smart one, with both business savvy and sound creative instincts, but we get no sense that the trip is any kind of personal crossroads for him. It's just a vacation from his day job. Tatum's performance is relaxed and charming, but not nearly as complex as his turn in the previous film, where Mike's facets as a dancer, pick-up artist, and entrepreneur all reflected a striving personality trying to adjust to difficult realities.

Steven Soderbergh helmed the first Magic Mike as one of his last films before (supposedly) retiring from feature films, although here he serves as cinematographer and editor to Gregory Jacobs' director. Occasionally Magic Mike XXL features odd little Soderbergh-esque details, like a young woman in a bikini and a pink motorcycle helmet who likes to crash into guys at the opening party.

Otherwise, the comedy about male strippers doesn't just shed clothes, but reasons to watch it. Magic Mike XXL delivers the same message to its audience as it does its title character: Just have fun for a while, and don't think about the real world. (3 out of 5 stars)

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