Call it a “cultural reset” or a “vibe shift,” but there’s no denying that there is before “Magic Mike” and there’s after “Magic Mike.” One can even point to a specific inflection point in Steven Soderbergh’s 2012 male stripper drama that was lightly culled from star Channing Tatum’s own experiences in an “all-male revue”: the scene in which Tatum, as the aforementioned Mike, performs a solo number to Ginuwine’s “Pony” as Cody Horn’s Brooke looks on from the crowd. It’s not just the hypnotic fluidity of Tatum’s hips and torso, but the way that Soderbergh cuts back to Brooke, our gaze becoming her gaze, her frown offering dramatic irony to the visual splendor that is Tatum’s body in motion.
The scene is directly referenced in the sequel, “Magic Mike XXL,” in which Joe Manganiello dances in a gas station while trying to inspire the stone-faced clerk to crack. These two scenes offer a unifying theory of what these films are trying to achieve: making women smile. With “Magic Mike,” Soderbergh allowed the female gaze to take center stage, and with his indie auteur brand name, he also made it cool for the straight film bros to get in on the fun, too.
“Magic Mike” is a movie about male strippers, but it’s also a post-recession financial drama about sex and nihilism and how labor and identity are inextricably linked. 2015’s “XXL,” also written by “Magic Mike” writer Reid Carolin, but directed by Gregory Jacobs, jettisoned the socioeconomic themes for feminism, putting female pleasure front and center as the boys went on the road on a tour of private shows featuring a bombastic bonanza of bods.
This unlikely franchise has gone on to spawn live shows in Las Vegas and London, and an HBO Max reality show “Finding Magic Mike.” For the third film in the trilogy, “Magic Mike’s Last Dance,” Carolin has once again penned the script, and Soderbergh has returned behind the camera (literally, as he shot the film under his cinematographer alias “Peter Andrews”). The gang is back together for one last grind but, unfortunately, the magic that was sparked in 2012 is nowhere to be found.
“Magic Mike’s Last Dance” is a profoundly odd film that betrays its production constraints, including the fact that large club scenes were likely a challenge to shoot during the pandemic, and that star Salma Hayek replaced Thandiwe Newton during the development, triggering an extensive rewrite.
Hayek plays Maxandra Mendoza, a wealthy divorcée getting her groove back when she meets Mike bartending at her Miami fundraiser. She offers him six grand for a lap dance, and when he delivers a one-of-a-kind sensual encounter that utilizes almost every architectural asset in her house, Max decides she’s got to bring the magic to the masses. She whisks Mike away to London, where they’ll put on a one-night-only cabaret in the style of the Moulin Rouge or Crazy Horse, in a plot that feels like a glorified ad for the Magic Mike Live show.
Every scene between Tatum and Hayek feels improvised, or at least wildly underwritten. In a way, it allows their personalities to shine — he’s still an adorable himbo with swag, she’s passionate, vivacious and also married to an absurdly rich European man in real life. But their circular conversations about whether to put on a show or fall in love are stultifying. It’s an unconvincing love story underpinned with a bizarre David Attenborough-like narration about the anthropological function of dance courtesy of Max’s daughter (Jemelia George).
We also come to discover in “Last Dance” that magic cannot survive on Mike alone. The fun of the first two movies came from the guys and their camaraderie and joy — Mike was surrounded by a crew of hunks who also happened to be characters. In “Last Dance,” there are a lot of abs to ogle, but not a single personality to be found. Carolin has either declined to write them, or perhaps they cast only dancers from the live shows and not actors who can dance.
The film plays like Soderbergh having an experimental lark with this lucrative, many-tentacled global brand, denying the spectacle we expect. His naturalistic style, using practical lighting and eschewing a film score, hearkens to traditional indie filmmaking modes and indeed nods to his approach with the first “Magic Mike,” which was more of a gritty Florida kitchen sink drama than eye-popping Fiesta of Flesh.
This final installment finds Soderbergh and Tatum toying with audience expectations to disappointing results. There are a few flashes of the original magic, but it’s lacking in the energy that made the first two movies a thrill. After the cultural reset of “Magic Mike,” this last dance just doesn’t bring the heat.