It’s hard to overstate how much I wanted to like Magic Mike XXL, the sequel to the 2012 Steven Soderbergh hit about male strippers. I have long proclaimed loudly to anyone who will listen that the first film is a stroke of genius, a subtle, sweet and, yes, gloriously sweaty exploration not just of women’s desire but of men’s too. It also, incidentally, features one of the last pre-Oscar performances from Matthew McConaughey before he got all serious in True Detective and Dallas Buyers Club, working that pop-eyed southern charm and those absurdly large abs in a tiny yellow crop-top and grotesquely leathery y-fronts until the audience wasn’t sure whether it was tickled or turned on.
We had already been alerted to the tragedy that there would be no McConaughey in the second film. And yet the trailer was still full of promise, striking that very fine balance between self-aware absurdity and genuine sexiness. It mostly features Channing Tatum, on whose real-life memories of stripping the films are loosely based, operating an electric saw in an unmistakeably sexual manner to the bump ‘n’ grind beats of Ginuwine’s 90s hit 'Pony', gyrating uncontrollably on the very tables where his character, 'magic' Mike, now makes the hideous custom furniture he longed to set up as a business when we met him three years earlier. Boy, that man can dance. It’s self-consciously silly, very sexy and ends with a cheeky nod to its fanbase, a tagline that simply reads: 'You’re welcome'.
Sadly though, the trailer is the best thing about this second film, which has none of the magnetism or wit of the first. It’s a road-trip movie that takes us on a tour of the best stripping venues the southern states apparently have to offer, without ever really arriving anywhere.
Mike has traded in the life of adulation and penis pumps for domestic bliss, shacked up quietly with his loving girlfriend and working hard on that furniture business. But when his old pals tell him they’re heading to the annual stripper convention in South Carolina, he unexpectedly rocks up to join them. He spots what’s really missing from their wearied routine: novelty. Be gone the old-school policeman and fireman costumes, and the acts that went with them. In their place, each stripper must search deep within his soul and come up with an individual routine that reflects the man within. A kind of emotional burlesque, if you will. Hulk Hogan-esque Tarzan (Kevin Nash) works an easel into his striptease.
The boys’ ability to reach out to women romantically takes centre stage as they cruise through the US in a rusty old RV offering stripping as therapy. It reaches its nauseating peak when the boys come to stay at the home of several older ladies (one of them, Andie MacDowell, is still reasonably hot and totally up for it, so this is ok) and coax them into talking about their man troubles before boosting their inevitably low self-esteem with some extra sensitive pelvic thrusts.
It’s insulting on so many levels. Stripping can of course be sexy but lying on a pinned-down woman’s face in public is not. The director and writer (Gregory Jacobs and Reid Carolin, who also worked on the first film with Soderbergh) seem to have misguidedly decided that every dance must have a plotline. When did stripping stop being so much fun?
In the end though, the film makes the classic mistake of aiming too high and setting itself up for a fall. Both men and women doggedly espouse feminist values, all the while their faces fixed in a rictus of toil and boredom rather than enlightenment. We, like the audience, spend most of the film waiting for a climax that never comes.