If you’re not someone who dreams of Channing Tatum flipping you around like a flapjack in front of an audience of shrieking women, you may scoff at the release of a third “Magic Mike” film. But the first two weren’t without their delights. 2012’s “Magic Mike” was a gritty exposé of the American dream with a side of oiled abs. In a move both savvy and soul-crushing, “Magic Mike XXL” leaned fully into selling sex, to serve up a campy, raunchy romp.
It’s tragic, then, that “Magic Mike’s Last Dance” fully delivers neither style nor substance. The film desperately strives to be a spectacle with a tired, faux-feminist message. It is a grandiose love story made for a rowdy audience with unromantic expectations. A filthy early dance sequence promises more for the horndogs, and Stephen Soderbergh’s slick direction lends some artistic cred, but this threequel is gutless — and relatively crotchless.
While bartending at a swanky charity event in Miami, Mike meets his match in Maxandra “Max” Mendoza (Salma Hayek Pinault). After a guest reveals Mike’s salacious past, Max asks him for a private dance. She’s floundering in the wake of her failed marriage and desperate for an escape. Though he’s supposedly hung up his G-string, Mike delivers a show-stopping number and they end up in bed — and, soon, in business — together.
Awakened by his gyrations, Max whisks Mike off to her home base of London where she appoints him the new director of a theater her husband bought her. She expects him to turn the stuffy costume drama currently in production into a feminist smash that will thaw the hearts of London’s pandemic-numbed women. Mike must integrate into Max’s world and try to appease his mercurial new mistress whose baggage is as unwieldy as her vision.
At least, that should be the central conflict. Though screenwriter Reid Carolin — who also wrote “Magic Mike” and “Magic Mike XXL” — adeptly peppers this film with witty dialogue, its story is shaky at best. Bizarre conflicts between the love interests masquerade as plot beats. There are plenty of natural opportunities for tension here: Max, who married into her money, is essentially paying Mike, a failed businessman and former sex worker, for his company. Instead, the film has Max conjure fights out of thin air and Mike is somehow left to make things right.
Of course, “Magic Mike’s Last Dance” would have to forego its eye-roll-inducing “feminist” conceit to address such complicated power dynamics. Max scorns the antiquated play being put on at her theater because it features a heroine who must choose between money and love. In a truly modern tale, the film posits, a woman would obviously choose neither, instead opting for a lot of casual sex. Cue the muscly dance ensemble and Ginuwine’s “Pony.”
Let’s set aside the hypocrisy of this assertion and address it head-on. Though, for the record, “Magic Mike’s Last Dance” makes its own female protagonist, Max, make the very same choice. Such a thesis is laughably out of touch with modern women’s struggles. Some feminist thinkers posit that casual sex actually makes women miserable, and try telling any working mother who navigated the pandemic with school-age children that women can have it all. In the real world, these things could be aided by universal child care or increased labor rights. In Magic Mike World, upper-class female freedom costs just as much as a good lap dance.
It’s absurd for a “Magic Mike” film to tackle these issues at all. The franchise has succeeded, for better or for worse, because hordes of women and gay men will happily turn their brains off and surrender themselves to the film’s abundant glitter and glutes. Seeing this movie try to solve for female empowerment feels like watching your overly political cousin turn Thanksgiving into a hunger strike. Nobody asked, and in fact, we all came here with the opposite goal in mind.
As it needlessly strives for meaning, “Magic Mike’s Last Dance” also tones down the raunch factor. An ensemble of professional dancers in a London theater is no Tampa bar or South Carolina strip convention. Though there are some acrobatic simulations of cunnilingus, there is no chocolate sauce licked off of audience members and no pretend marriage that leads to a sex swing. The Kings of Tampa only reunite over Zoom, and there are certainly no drag queens. Banana hammocks are shockingly absent.
Sure, there are two dance numbers where Tatum does his dirty best, but a respectable sheen covers nearly everything. Mike’s climactic performance takes place not with an unsuspecting audience member but rather with a professional ballerina played by the dancer Kylie Shea.
Maybe this is all a sign of progress, or just of Mike — and his franchise — getting older, but it has a dulling effect. Tatum is winsome and agile as ever and Hayek is a capable comedian. Once or twice, the cinematography is playful enough to make you remember the franchise’s indie roots. But, on the whole, this needlessly elevated film is as frustrating as it is forgettable.
Maybe in an alternate universe, “Magic Mike” went the social commentary route; but we’re here, where audiences have decided to fixate on its audacious costumes and penis pumps. Why “Magic Mike’s Last Dance” chooses to teach viewers about love, consent, and having it all, then, is a mystery. The Galentine’s Day crowd will probably be too drunk to notice.