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In 2012, Steven Soderbergh accomplished the impossible by making audiences – made up of various chromosome compositions – fall in love with a ragtag scrap of male strippers. Magic Mike not only dominated the box office – netting north of 113 million dollars domestically on a 7 million dollar production budget – but won the hearts and minds of critics, who rewarded the film with a 80% Rotten Tomato score. All signs pointed swiftly towards the birth of a new franchise centered around denuding men with real world issues. Women (and some men) rejoiced; ’twas raining men.

When it was announced that Soderbergh himself would not be returning to direct the sequel, doubts were cast about the quality to profit-mongering ratio. And though Gregory Jacobs’ road trip film lacks the depth of vision, striking dark tone and complexity of character that defined Soderbergh’s surprisingly excellent franchise-birth-giver, Magic Mike XXL is a zinging comedic romp brimming with impressive dance numbers and a smattering of fun-loving characters.

10.20_ 2316.tiffQuickly resolving the issue of “Magic” Mike’s retirement from the all-male “The Kings of Tampa” revue, XXL reunites Channing Tatum’s Grecian sculpture of a body with his former crew of improbably jacked gentlemen for one last go at the removing your clothes gambit. This artist formerly known as the prince of the pole has found mild success with his custom furniture company, cherishing the appeal of the whole “being your own boss” business while also lamenting the general lack of excitemnt in his two-man business, and sorely missing the opportunity to bare it all for salivating audiences. We know this because of a scene that’s equally stupid, surreal and wonderfully silly: Mike hears Ginuwine’s “Pony” – his call to action in whomping audio form – pump through the radio waves and helplessly breaks into a loft-wide freestyle dance. He’s sliding on chairs, grinding metal down to sparks and, obviously, disrobing (for an empty room.) The audience moistens palpably.

Magic Mike XXL thrives on the basis of over-the-top scene work like this. A little flash-dancing here, a little ecstasy trip there. It’s a new page for the series, one decided less grounded in reality and yet more interested in delivering the goods directly into its audience’s main vein. And like with good smack, you’re too busy enjoying yourself to realize that maybe there’s not too much going on behind the curtain. You’re drugged with images of alabaster abs and bulbing biceps. While round one was Xquisite at proving rich stories came from dark corners – Mike’s retreat from “the life”; the Kid’s headfirst descent into it – Jacobs’ secondary sexposition happily drags things into the light and let the jokes (and clothing) fly fast and loose.

9.30_ 0151.tiffWithout Alex Pettyfer and Cody Horn providing the emotional fulcrum – which in turn helped to reveal the scuzzy underbelly of the male stripping world – Magic Mike XXL breaks its own mold; metastasizing into a whole different beast with differently shaded pastures. The action takes place in the blinding Florida sunshine or wine-splashed wanna-be-chateaus rather than shady backroom offices with promises of riches or the blinding florescence of the main stage for man staging. Soderbergh himself shoots the picture though so the product looks equally stellar regardless of its shade. And if cutesy banana slings proved a metaphorical prison in Magic Mike, those small clothes have also been shed. After all, no Dallas (Matthew McConaughey) means no guiding light ferrying this crew to a manipulative empire-building endgame. The Kings of Tampa’s tsunami of dollar bills comes of their own accord.

Channing Tatum remains the emotional core of the crew (and the standout performer on the dance floor) but it’s Joe Manganiello who thrusts himself into spotlight most violently, stealing scenes left and right with his unlikely combination of well-endowed masculinity and teddy-bear “aw shucks” mannerisms. A scene mixing Cheetos with The Backstreet Boys remains a highlight well after the film has reached its climax. And speaking of climax, had someone in the editing department floated the idea of dressing down the dressing down scenes just a tad, Magic Mike XXL would be that much sleeker and that much more enjoyable (at least speaking on the part of us men.)

10.16_ 1931.tiffJoining the party this time out (and partially responsible for some of the scenes that drag most), Jada Smith plays a smooth-talking MC who both reinforces the empowering nature of Magic Mike XXL’s provocatively feminist-friendly message and drags us into the depths of the film’s reckoning place. Her castle of male strippers is one pit stop that amplifies the scatological without providing much in terms of emotional reward. At the very least, Jada’s Rome distracts us from the underwhelming addition of Amber Heard as a ice-cream-eating, urine-voyeuring dancer-cum-photographer who’s doing what she can to avoid “ending up on the pole.”

Hers is a plot point to Magic Mike XXL that feels more the product of Hollywood script writing requirements (“But where’s the saucy love interest?!”) than the result of genuine narrative massaging. After all, Magic Mike has more than enough bromance to go around and to make up for a perceived lack of amour. Says Tatum, “I haven’t been on a movie where people would show up on their days off to watch and support their friends. We didn’t need to write anything, just turn the cameras on” and this works both to XXL’s benefit and its determent: scenes have a natural sense of camaraderie to them that can’t be faked, bartered for or bought and yet still, the film feels underwritten and thin at the seams.

Magic_Mike_XXL_SilverScreenRiot_1This shortcoming is forgiven in the face of an engulfing wave of laugh-out loud eruptions, eye-boggling dance numbers and a crew of guys you pine to hang just one more minute with. In one swift chop, Gregory has crafted a movie that’s everything the Entourage movie should have been; a bunch of good looking guys shooting the shit, partying hardy and getting nakie when it counts. There’s not a lot more to XXL than its party movie veneer, but it’s that rare party veneer that I want to jump through the screen into, slap on a fireman cap and dance around on its super-contrived stage. Plus, the combined excretion of audiences (saliva and otherwise) is likely enough to quiet droughts ‘round the world. So see Magic Mike XXL. For the environment.

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