"Magic Mike XXL" Runs Hot And Cold

Magic Mike” was one of the best films of 2012. Despite being saddled with a July release date and outwardly trivial subject matter, it made a surprisingly healthy showing when it came to year-end top 10 lists (this writer had it slotted at number 5).

“Magic Mike XXL” still has its heart in the right place but struggles to live up to its predecessor. Is it any wonder, though? Without retired director Steven Soderbergh (on board here as director of photography and editor, under pseudonyms), star Matthew McConaughey (who opted not to return), or a discernible plot (writer Reid Carolin’s screenplay is shockingly laid back), it’s a marvel “XXL” is any good at all.

Unfulfilled by his custom furniture business, Channing Tatum’s eponymous male stripper is lured back to a world of G-strings and Ginuwine and copious amounts of air humping. By undoing the clean break Mike made at the end of the first film, “XXL” immediately sets itself up as a 2-hour chaser, a sort of mea culpa for its predecessor’s descent into an underbelly of drugs and bad decisions.

But that darkness was what made “Magic Mike” so remarkable.

In trying to maintain the same art house aesthetic while swapping out drama for non-stop feel-good-isms, director Gregory Jacobs finds himself with an intermittently fun movie that stubbornly refuses to do anything with its characters. It also ends up a pretty clumsy companion piece to Soderbergh’s original.

Down nearly half of his crew, Mike reunites with Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello), Ken (Matt Bomer), Tarzan (Kevin Nash), and Tito (Adam Rodriguez) to head to a male stripper convention in Myrtle Beach for one last hurrah. There’s not much more to it than that.

The road trip that follows focuses on the quintet rediscovering the joys of exotic dancing – most notably, making their clientele feel good – and unearthing a few skeletons along the way.

Jada Pinkett Smith is as flat as ever as a strip club owner, but her storyline allows Donald Glover (also known as rapper Childish Gambino) a refreshing turn as a musician-turned-dancer. Amber Heard is also impressive, doing good work as an underdeveloped love interest for Mike. With her character mostly disconnected from the rest of the film, her chemistry with Tatum crackles anyway and their scenes together are some of the pic’s best.

But the project obviously comes down to the five leads. And for a nearly 2-hour film with no conflict to speak of, we learn surprisingly little about any of them. Tatum proves he’s still capable of carrying a movie, while Manganiello is noteworthy as the aforementioned Big Dick Ritchie. But Carolin’s screenplay never bothers digging into what makes the latter tick, apart from allusions to an unsatisfied romantic life.

The muddled, convoluted plotting is forgivable, but the utter lack of intrigue is hard to get past. Things are mostly the same at the pic’s end as they were at the beginning, and the climax is just a lengthy dance sequence that doesn’t match up to those of the original.

Still, there are moments that do stand up, sure to get fans all revved up all over again. There have been few scenes in movies this year as pleasurable seeing Tatum writhe to Ginuwine’s “Pony” in his toolshed (get it?) or Manganiello gyrate to a 90s boy band classic in the middle of a convenience store.

For viewers willing to put up with a largely pointless story, there are still revelations to be had in “Magic Mike XXL.” They’re just harder to come by this time around.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: July 1, 2015
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Gregory Jacobs
Screenwriter: Reid Carolin
Starring: Channing Tatum, Joe Manganiello, Matt Bomer, Kevin Nash, Adam Rodriguez, Amber Heard, Gabriel Iglesias, Jada Pinkett Smith, Donald Glover
MPAA Rating: R (for strong sexual content, pervasive language, some nudity and drug use)