Magic Mike XXL

Warner Bros. Pictures
Rated R for strong sexual content, pervasive language, some nudity and drug use.
Running time: 115 minutes.
Three stars out of four.

The abs are tight in the sequel “Magic Mike XXL” — and the pecs, and the thighs, and the asses — but the movie itself has a loose, shaggy vibe that has an appeal all its own.

Oh, don’t get me wrong: The male stripping sequences are hot. (If you’re into that kind of thing, that is. I’d probably react the way Amber Heard’s character does on stage during the movie’s splashy finale: just giggly and incredulous.) Much of the film’s joy comes from seeing it in a packed theater — all the better to laugh and squeal alongside hundreds of other straight women and gay men reveling in the spectacle of it all. It’s raining men, again, hallelujah.

But in between the bumping and grinding and shedding of clothing, the story meanders a bit. It takes its time. It’s a road trip movie with plenty of stops along the way for talking and learning and — shockingly — actual growth from its characters, and not just physically. When Steven Soderbergh directed the original “Magic Mike” from 2012 —  a surprise smash hit that made over $167 million worldwide — he was fascinated by the minutiae of these strippers’ (er, male entertainers’) lives. He lingered over the mundane details of their daily routine like weightlifting and thong shopping.

Soderbergh’s longtime first assistant director, Gregory Jacobs, gets the chance to direct the sequel, but the interest in process remains: where these guys get their inspiration, how they put together their routines, and most importantly, how they find their voices. Corny as it may sound, “Magic Mike XXL” is about a search for identity. Not to get all Oprah on you, but it’s about finding your purpose in life.

If you’re not a fireman or a police officer or a cowboy beneath those breakaway pants, then who are you, really? This is the central question of “Magic Mike XXL.”

Reid Carolin once again has written the script, and Soderbergh has shot and cut it using his usual pseudonyms, but this is a very different movie in a lot of ways from the original — starting with the absence of Matthew McConaughey as Dallas, the dancers’ spark and spiritual guide. (Alex Pettyfer, as The Kid who became Channing Tatum’s protege, also is gone). But maybe going in a different direction isn’t such a bad thing. In following up a couple of massive hits this year, “Pitch Perfect 2” and, to a certain extent, “Ted 2” played it safe by offering us nearly the exact same movie all over again. This at least dares to set its own tone, and risks being not as obviously crowd-pleasing and adored.

“Magic Mike XXL” picks up three years later, with Tatum’s titular character living in Florida and fulfilling his dream of running his own custom furniture company. When he gets the call from his fellow Kings of Tampa, asking him to join them as they journey to Myrtle Beach, S.C., for the annual Male Strippers Convention (and there is such a thing), he’s initially apprehensive. But one night, working in his shop, the beat of a hip-hop tune takes hold of him — and this is the first of the movie’s many giggle-and-gawk moments. If you’ve seen the original “Step Up” or the first “Magic Mike,” you know what a gifted dancer Tatum is — muscular, yet effortless. The moves he busts out are modern, yet the spontaneity behind them makes this scene feel like something out of an old-fashioned musical.

And so he says yes to Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello), pretty boy Ken (Matt Bomer), the hulking Tarzan (Kevin Nash) and the smooth Tito (Adam Rodriguez) for that tried-and-true one last show. They all hop into Tito’s traveling frozen yogurt truck with buddy Tobias (Gabriel Iglesias) behind the wheel and head north. Along the way, they vogue at an amateur drag show, amuse a sad convenience store cashier (with a truly inspired use of the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way”) and party with strangers on the beach, including an unusually understated Heard as a photographer in flux. (Soderbergh lights the exchange between Tatum and Heard really daringly, though, with bold use of nighttime darkness to accentuate their eyes and cheekbones.)

But the most crucial stop of all happens in Savannah, Georgia, when they visit an old flame of Mike’s: the beautiful and fierce Rome (Jada Pinkett Smith), who now runs a members-only strip club for women inside an opulent, historic home. She addresses her clientele as queens, and preaches that they should have whatever they want from men, from life. You can practically see the light bulb go on over all these guys’ heads as they watch hugely charismatic performers — including Donald Glover, who seduces through song, and Stephen “tWitch” Boss from “So You Think You Can Dance” — work real magic on the swooning crowd. These guys are actually paying attention to women’s needs, not just preening. Pinkett Smith is just as magnetic as the men on stage, and she commands a room just as powerfully despite her petite frame.

And before they reach their final destination, they also enjoy an oddly lovely interlude with Andie MacDowell as a flirtatious divorcee entertaining her fellow middle-aged pals in her elegant Southern home. It’s a nice nod to Soderbergh’s groundbreaking debut, “sex, lies and videotape,” and it gives MacDowell a chance to play the total opposite of her demure character in that film without devlving into cliched cougardom.

Finally, they hit Myrtle Beach, where Elizabeth Banks makes a slyly charming appearance as the convention’s drawling coordinator. All these women shape Mike as his buddies for the better. And while their eventual, climactic performance is insanely over-the-top (with rather ridiculous production values, given the short notice), it comes from a heartfelt place.

Maybe “Magic Mike XXL” is secretly a romance after all.

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