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In the 'Last Dance,' Magic Mike leaves his thong-and-dance routine behind

Max (Salma Hayek Pinault) convinces Mike (Channing Tatum) to join her in London in <em>Magic Mike's Last Dance.</em>
Warner Bros.
Max (Salma Hayek Pinault) convinces Mike (Channing Tatum) to join her in London in Magic Mike's Last Dance.

Given how little sex or sensuality there is in mainstream American cinema these days, it's no surprise that the Magic Mike movies have been so popular. The first Magic Mike, directed by Steven Soderbergh in 2012, was an irresistible showcase for Channing Tatum and his thong-and-dance routine, though it was also a sharp, realistic portrait of cash-strapped workers getting by in post-recession Florida. Three years later, the director Gregory Jacobs leaned into the erotic spectacle of it all with the exuberant Magic Mike XXL, placing women's desires front and center in a way that made even the first movie look staid.

Magic Mike's Last Dance, which Soderbergh directed from a script by Reid Carolin, isn't nearly as sexy or as deliriously entertaining as its predecessors — or, I assume, as the Magic Mike Live shows that have sprung up in recent years. Still, the new movie does begin with one doozy of a seduction. Mike, his stripping days long behind him, is now working part-time as a bartender in Miami. One evening, he finds himself mixing a drink for a wealthy London-based socialite named Maxandra Mendoza, played with a nice mix of vulnerability and steel by Salma Hayek Pinault.

Max is going through a very messy divorce, and she could use a little distraction. When she finds out what Mike used to do for a living, she asks him to give her a private dance.

Mike gives her what she asks for, starting with a lap dance and building to what looks like an elaborate home-gymnastics routine. (There's a funny bit beforehand where he tests out the furniture to make sure it can support the weight of his acrobatics.) The dance scene is gorgeous and hypnotic, and it whets your appetite for more. But then the movie takes a surprising turn. Max, impressed by the passion and artistry of Mike's dancing, asks him to come back to London with her. There, he'll take over as director of a play at the theater that she now owns as part of her separation agreement.

The play is a dreary-looking period drama called Isabel Ascendant, and Max thinks it needs a massive contemporary overhaul, with more heat and more urgency — and, yes, an ensemble of male strippers. And so she and Mike begin recruiting the best and hottest dancers they can find, none of whom have ever stripped in public before, though they're game enough to give it a try. Magic Mike's Last Dance has an infectious let's-put-on-a-show energy, plus some wry family drama courtesy of Jemelia George as Max's sarcastic teenage daughter. Meanwhile, as Max's divorce proceedings continue, her relationship with Mike becomes its own complication.

Soderbergh has always liked to subvert expectations, and here he seems bent on short-circuiting a lot of the pleasures we've come to expect from the Magic Mike movies.

The possibility of long-term romance didn't really factor into the first two Magic Mike movies, which were all about fleeting transactional encounters. I guess that makes Magic Mike's Last Dance the more mature, thoughtful entertainment, and I'm not sure that's entirely a good thing. Don't get me wrong: Tatum and Hayek Pinault have an on-screen chemistry that's both romantic and collaborative. Their characters' creative back-and-forth becomes a vision of gender parity in action: Max wants to thrill her play's female audience, but she needs Mike's smarts and expertise to do it. Still, there's something a little too dutiful and even dull about the way the characters' mutual attraction ultimately plays out.

Soderbergh has always liked to subvert expectations, and here he seems bent on short-circuiting a lot of the pleasures we've come to expect from the Magic Mike movies. The dancing and the stripping feel tamer this time around. We don't really get to know the dancers as characters, and I missed the raunchy male camaraderie of Mike's old stripper buddies, played by actors like Matt Bomer and Joe Manganiello, who appear in just one brief scene. At the same time, there's something fitting about how muted and even melancholy this movie feels. As the title suggests, Magic Mike's Last Dance is about a guy bidding farewell to his calling and passing the baton to the next generation. Stripping was never his dream job, but it was good for him while it lasted, and also for us.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.