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Magic Mike 3 Review: An Off-Beat Last Dance

  • Great chemistry from the two leads
  • exemplary camera work for all the dance sequences
  • doesn't feel like a rehash of the prior two films, but --
  • -- loses some of its charm without much of the second film's supporting cast

In the six years since Steven Soderbergh "retired" from helming feature films — a period that saw him direct, shoot, and edit two full seasons of television — the tireless multi-hyphenate has fathered eight pictures, each for different platforms, with varied budgets and capture devices. From shooting on an iPhone 8 Plus to experimental new RED sensors, from diverse streamers back to the big screen, he's arguably the artist most uniquely suited to navigating the ever-changing world of theatrical exhibition. 

That's why it was such a bummer when "Magic Mike's Last Dance" was initially announced as an HBO Max exclusive release. Surely, if any mid-budgeted drama aimed at adults deserved to be spared the fate of existing solely as scroll fodder between thumbnails of interchangeable content on a Tuesday evening, it should be the third and final act in Channing Tatum's semi-autobiographical series of films about his former life as a stripper, a project near-guaranteed to please rowdy, in-person audiences. 

But now that the film is here and opening on 1,500 screens nationwide, it may prove to be a grave miscalculation. For the money, "Last Dance" is going to send a lot of moviegoers home with smiles on their faces. It features some of Soderbergh's most inspiring direction and cinematography in years and some truly stirring work from Tatum, as well as an indiscriminate amount of shirtless hunks gyrating. All things considered, it ought to be "Top Gun: Maverick" for lonely housewives, Scruff users, and anyone else who appreciates the male form in poetic motion.

Unfortunately for some, Soderbergh is not the kind of magician to perform the same trick twice. Much of what makes this film special is the way it evolves from what a "Magic Mike" movie can be from its prior two outings. But unlike his "Ocean's" trilogy of shimmering heist flicks, he and screenwriter Reid Carolin may have mucked with the formula too much for viewers used to being spoon-fed exactly what they want to the point they won't be willing to accept a serving of what they actually need.

Once more unto the breach

Where "Magic Mike XXL" was an ensemble affair that centered itself around Mike's male friendships in a kind of buddy comedy road trip flick, "Last Dance" is a more intimate affair. The film picks up with Mike Lane (Tatum) post-pandemic, his business having failed, he's back to freelance bartending gigs. One such job brings him into the orbit of Maxandra Mendoza (Salma Hayek Pinault), a lost woman trying to navigate a new life away from her estranged, affluent, soon-to-be ex-husband. One chance encounter with Mike, in the film's stunning, bravura opening sequence, sees her entire world change with just one dance from Mike. Max convinces Mike to follow her back to London, where she owns a historic theater called The Ratigan. 

A gift from the divorce Max only wanted because her mother-in-law prized it, she sees the theater as an opportunity to make some noise. She fires the director of the theater's long-running popular play, "Isabel Ascending," a stuffy costume drama about a rich woman who can't make up her mind about what she wants, and hires Mike to take over the production. She tells him she wants him to bring to the stage all the magic he has imbued into her life. Mike knows absolutely nothing about staging a play but is thrilled at the possibilities of choreographing a show and making a version of his own act for a new kind of audience.

At first, there's something electric about this strange connection between them. The two are clearly falling for one another, but Max insists on keeping things strictly business. She preaches a lot about the arts and integrity, but it's hard to see this venture as anything other than a ploy to piss off her stuffy rich friends. But Mike goes along with it, not just because of the money he's promised, but because it's the first time anyone has truly bought into his talent in such a supportive way. 

And so, "Last Dance" is largely about the process of putting together a show, complete with fun numbers of Mike teaching a cast full of trained dancers how to bend their skill sets to fit the duties of a stripper. It doubles down on the final act of "XXL," but must do so with a new cast of dancers we never get to know on any real level. Mike's friends from the prior outings make one solitary appearance via a five-way Zoom call, and that brief scene makes the lack of their presence elsewhere sting a bit. 

But the script doesn't really have much room to introduce and explore a bunch of new characters when this production is really an excuse to make the will-they-or-won't-they tension between Mike and Max into a grand spectacle. Everything about the play and what they're trying to accomplish becomes a metaphor for wherever they are in their love story at any given moment. Max's daughter Zadie (Jemelia George) and their butler Victor (Ayub Khan Din) provide some comic relief to their otherwise dialed-down romcom shenanigans, but the sexy men dancing, though background fodder, remains the real spirit of the film — just perhaps not in the way audiences may expect or want.

Dream job? Who dreams of labor?

Admittedly, Carolin's script has its difficulties juggling the film's central love story with the entertainment quotient necessary to keep the eye candy abundant for thirsty audience members. But those stumbles are more forgivable in getting to watch Soderbergh stretch his wings and try to find a way to make what could be a shameless sequel into something special on its own. "Last Dance" most calls to mind "Ocean's Twelve," an originally maligned second outing in a beloved franchise where the restlessly inventive filmmaker may have gone too far askew of expectations. But divorced of obligation to repeat old tricks, the movie remains one of his most alluring and fascinating works years removed from its critical trouncing.

"Last Dance" may suffer a similar fate, as it's already getting mediocre notices from writers and pundits unable to articulate what it's missing, just emphatically insisting that it must be something. But take away trying to define what a "Magic Mike" film must be, engage with the work on its own merits, and it is something so moving and so exciting in its originality. In films as diverse as "Out of Sight" and "Solaris," Soderbergh has always been a sneakily romantic storyteller, so he employs those skills here in moving these disparate players to the center of the board together. 

Forget the fact that Hayek and Tatum are both so hot and have such palpable chemistry. Soderbergh takes the film's prologue, Mike's dance for Max, and spends the entire film trying to deconstruct exactly what was so sensual and affecting about it. One of the best scenes in "XXL," which Soderbergh shot but did not direct, features Joe Manganiello's Tarzan doing a private dance for an unsuspecting gas station cashier to "I Want It That Way" by the Backstreet Boys. It perfectly encapsulates this powerful connection between subject and performer, and how enriching it is both for the desired and the desirer to bond. But in "Last Dance," it's more specifically about what Mike does for Max and being able to recreate that on a larger scale.

Soderbergh has said this film only exists because of how in awe he was of "Magic Mike Live," a real theater experience Tatum conceived and directed as a stage show version of the final act of "XXL." So there's a great deal of "Last Dance" that is just the director indulging in making a "process" movie, as he often does, digging into the practical details of putting on a show and finding inspiration from old musicals in the staging of that same show. That may be what enticed him in the first place, but the real magical element of the film is more tethered to another of his pet themes, the intersection of art and commerce.

Carolin's script may stumble with some of the love story, but the one part of it that rings the truest is the kinship these two individuals find in each other being so tethered to the creation of art, and the freedom that they're temporarily afforded as the result of resources born from true heartbreak. Soderbergh's best movies are the ones that really dig deep into what it means to work for a living and how hard it can be to get by in a capitalist society. But there's a real joy here in seeing both Max and Mike come alive making something together, even if the bittersweet finale implies doing so on the scale they achieve here may have been a one-time event.

But as Soderbergh's entire filmography shows, there's real magic in trying something new and something difficult, even if it doesn't quite work at first.

"Magic Mike's Last Dance" hits theaters on February 10, 2023. It is expected to subsequently stream on HBO Max at an as-yet-unannounced date.