A dowdy-looking London bureaucrat commutes to work on a number 12 bus, sharing the top deck with 11 other passengers – all of whom suddenly break into a coordinated strip routine fizzing with surprise, energy, flirtation and wit, a troupe working in sync to deliver a splash of real magic to an everyday setting. It’s a charming moment in a film that otherwise struggles to feel coordinated, original or plausible.
Magic Mike’s Last Dance is the third (and, its title suggests, final) instalment in the story of Mike Lane, a character inspired by producer/star Channing Tatum’s own experiences working on the Miami stripping (or male entertainment) scene. We first met him in Soderbergh’s Magic Mike (2012), a kind of morality play in which, as he hits his 30s, the character faces a choice between callous self-interest and care for himself and others. Magic Mike XXL (Gregory Jacobs, 2015) made him a kind of muse, catalyst and fairy godmother, enabling the pleasure, expression and agency of various others. Last Dance finds him plucked from bartending by wealthy sociality Max (Salma Hayek Pinault), who is splitting from her husband in London and commissions Mike to produce a scandalous show in the theatre owned by her ex’s family. The relationship will, they insist, be strictly business.
Tatum and Hayek Pinault are thoroughly charismatic: she’s dynamic, formidable yet vulnerable; he’s deadpan, at once puppyish and jaded; neither is anyone’s fool. They have great chemistry too, as an early scene shows to both camp and steamy effect. Beyond this, however, there’s not much going on in terms of character or narrative – a disappointment given the charms of the earlier films.
Mike is appealingly attuned to the wants and needs of others; his willingness to extend consideration and care underpinned Magic Mike XXL to great effect. Here, though, he recedes further into passivity, offering his cast savvy pointers on erotic dance technique but otherwise becoming largely reactive, even infantilised, leaving little sense of what’s at stake for him in all this. (“Who are you?” Max asks at one point. “I don’t know,” he replies.) Nor is there much substance to Mike and Max’s relationship, or to other figures on screen. The company’s dancers showcase their considerable technical prowess but couldn’t properly be described as characters, while the choreography leans harder into slick, borderline cheesy moves than the earlier films’ character- and story-driven routines did. Meanwhile, Max’s gruff-but-kind butler Victor (Ayub Khan Din) and sarcastic-but-supportive daughter Zadie (Jemilia George) feel less like rounded people and more like echoes of John Gielgud in Arthur (1981) and Julia Sawalha in Absolutely Fabulous (1992-2004) respectively.
These last two characters are of a piece with the peculiar storybook version of London that the film presents, which shares more with onscreen satires and fantasias than with any lived experience of the city. So we get a stage manager who calls people ‘guv’, a smattering of exquisite tearooms, a brace of pasty, hatchet-faced killjoy bureaucrats, and dialogue sprinkled with awkward mid-Atlanticisms and blunt exposition. A heightened, cartoonish mode can be handily put in the service of engaging conflict and character work – see the Paddington films (2014, 2017), for instance – but the narrative framing here feels sketchy and muddled. Max and Mike’s show is positioned as a radical revamp of a (fictional) starchy drawing-room drama: they are supposedly subverting a misogynistic classic to deliver a “show about empowering women” that will have crusty establishment types choking on their Earl Grey. Yet space for actual female agency turns out to be distinctly limited, and even scandalisation proves thin on the ground.
There’s confusion about the degree to which Mike and Max, as apparent outsiders, are in conflict with their environment. The set-up suggests their intention to undermine, even violate, the entrenched power dynamics represented by a reactionary canonical text and an established stage venue kept in aspic. In practice, indignation gives way to geniality, which in turn blurs into conventionality. The script mentions structural inequality and the levelling potential of dance but the movie’s attention is fixed on luxurious lifestyles and beautiful bodies. Even the genre plotline is hard to get a bead on, with the terms of the challenge the characters face in putting on their show repeatedly shifting. The resulting performance, though technically highly impressive, hardly fulfils the promise of a “zombie apocalypse of repressed desire”. We’re left hankering for more care for character, motivation and narrative; more raw sexiness; more cheeky fun on the top deck.
► Magic Mike’s Last Dance is in UK cinemas from Friday 10 February.