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Channing Tatum (second from right) and company are abs-olutely fabulous in Magic Mike XXL.

Well, you figured Magic Mike would get a sequel. You figured it would be on a larger scale. You just didn’t figure it would have a prayer of working without Matthew McConaughey. Well, Dallas is gone, and Magic Mike XXL is not as good partly because of that, but it works well enough that you can imagine this going on as a series. That news is probably as welcome to Warner Bros.’ executives as the arrival of this film is to its fans.

We begin four years after the events of Magic Mike, with Mike Lane (Channing Tatum) out of the stripping game and having gotten his custom-furniture business unsteadily off the ground, though he wound up losing his girlfriend. When the old gang comes back into Tampa, they rope him into joining their show when they hit the male strippers’ convention in Myrtle Beach.

With Steven Soderbergh still retired from directing for now, the chair is now occupied by Gregory Jacobs, though Soderbergh stays on as this film’s cinematographer under his screen alias of Peter Andrews. Jacobs previously served as an assistant director on a host of Soderbergh’s other films, including Magic Mike, though the only films he has directed himself were the tepid con-artist thriller Criminal and the downright frigid supernatural thriller Wind Chill.

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Apparently, the focus groups told the studio that they didn’t like the darker elements of Magic Mike, so those have been jettisoned, and the result bears an uncanny resemblance to Pitch Perfect 2. (The presence of Elizabeth Banks here as a convention MC only heightens the resemblance.) There’s no weight to any of the characters’ interactions, and the message that these men are spreading happiness and self-esteem to lonely, depressed women is hammered home relentlessly. We get this in the strippers’ stop at the home of a wealthy Southern belle (Andie MacDowell) who has just kicked her husband out, and we get it in Mike’s interactions with an embittered bisexual photographer (Amber Heard). We didn’t need 115 minutes of this. The original’s strength lay in its brevity.

The dance routines rescue this movie. The budget and production values are higher here, and new choreographer Alison Faulk (who appeared onscreen in the original) has made the numbers better than they were in the original. Her creativity shows up in high relief during the climactic number, which features two women sitting back-to-back while Mike and another stripper (Stephen “tWitch” Boss) mirror each other’s movements. Another scene has the strippers show up at the home of Mike’s ex-boss and ex-girlfriend (Jada Pinkett Smith), who has now set up her own private club catering to rich African-American women. If your particular bag happens to be black men, you will be in heaven during this extended interlude that includes a strip routine by former NFL great Michael Strahan and a rap by a shirtless Donald Glover.

In keeping with the spirit of the original, the numbers display a sense of humor, too. As a bus driver and business partner to the strippers, the rotund stand-up comic Gabriel Iglesias owns one number when he does a Carmen Miranda-inspired bit and upstages the strippers at their own show. Funniest of all is the early bit when Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello) takes up a challenge from his colleagues and performs a strip routine in a convenience store for a sour-faced clerk to the song that happens to come on the radio, “I Want It That Way.” (What really makes the scene is the cutaways to the other strippers screaming inaudible encouragement to him outside the store window.)

So, you see, the series never needed Matthew McConaughey. It doesn’t even need Channing Tatum, as comfortably as the title role has come to fit him. All it needs is a steady influx of dancing talent and a continued high level of choreography. Now, that does sound easier to sustain than it actually is, but the Step Up series went on without Tatum, and so can this. With proper management, the studio will be profiting off Magic Mike sequels and stocking up on body oil for the next decade.

[box_info]Magic Mike XXL
Starring Channing Tatum, Joe Manganiello, and Matt Bomer. Directed by Gregory Jacobs. Written by Reid Carolin. Rated R.[/box_info]

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