Review: ‘Magic Mike XXL’ gives Channing Tatum one of his rowdiest roles yet

Here's how I know “Magic Mike XXL” is a good film.

There's an entire subplot about how unhappy Big Dick Richie is about his inability to find a woman who is physically built right to accommodate his outrageous size. A “glass slipper,” as it were. And we are supposed to actually empathize with this horrifying problem of being preposterously hot and so well-endowed that it becomes a problem.

And it works. Like pretty much everything else “Magic Mike XXL” does, that subplot works because of how it's written, how it's played, and how it's shot, and on all fronts, “Magic Mike XXL” is exemplary. There is a subtle quality to the film that works in its favor, especially when the material itself picks up a kind of supercharge in certain sequences. It is rowdy at heart, but smart about it, and it is one more reminder that Channing Tatum is really not like anyone else working in movies right now. It is also celebratory in the way that the first film was sad, concerned more with self-acceptance than running from something.

As the film opens, it's been three years since Mike (Tatum) quit working as a male stripper in order to open a custom furniture business. Now he's still struggling, and his personal life is hardly the happy ever after the film film implied. What I like about the first act of the film is that it refuses to do things the conventional way. They don't over-explain every tiny epiphany that happens, nor do they ever make this feel like the stakes are life and death. It's so easy to approach a sequel as an excuse to go BIGGER, but that's not the game plan here. Written by Reid Carlin and directed by Gregory Jacobs, the film unfolds in a loose, organic way. Mike falls back in with Richie (Joe Manganiello), Tarzan (Kevin Nash), Ken (Matt Bomer), and Tito (Adam Rodriguez) as they make their way from Tampa to Myrtle Beach for an annual convention of male strippers. They encounter various women along the way, and then they dance. The end. That's it. And yet that's exactly right. That's all the film should be, and it hums along with this great sense of quiet confidence.

What feels almost revolutionary is how focused the film is on female pleasure. In one of the film's best scenes, they stop in at the home of a girl they met on the road, only to meet a pack of older women led by the girl's mother, Andie McDowell. It's a funny, powerful sequence that speaks to something common and shared. As the women talk about their experiences and their dissatisfactions, the men sit there and listen. Really listen. And when they finally respond, it is practically surgical, the perfect response to make these women not only feel happy, but also respected and even revered. One of the new characters in the film, Andre (Donald Glover), specializes in what can only be described as the most self-esteem empowering lap dance in the history of lap dances, and it would not surprise me if he garners a whole new fanbase just from this one film. The guys sort of half-jokingly call themselves healers, and in a way, the film makes the case that they might be right.

Jada Pinkett Smith shows up as the owner of a private dancing club, all aimed at women, or “Queens” as she calls them. She's got a history with Mike, but like everything else, it's underplayed just right, and Pinkett-Smith gets a chance to really shine in her scenes. She's never been sexier, and it's because of her attitude and her presence, not her admittedly spectacular white pants. Amber Heard plays Zoe, a girl who pops up a few times on the road trip, and the interplay between her and Tatum would suggest that someone needs to find them a full-length vehicle very soon. Heard is a really interesting actress, but she needs the right person to bounce off of if she's going to shine. Tatum appears to be the right person, and while there's no BIG AMAZING UNBELIEVABLE MOMENT, it still lands in a way that feels very satisfying.

Much of the charm of the film results from the interplay between the guys, and the whole cast is very funny, on point the entire time. Manganiello in particular has never been better used in a film, and Bomer seems to be announcing to Hollywood that they need to find a musical vehicle for him at their earlier opportunity. Of course, you can't discuss the film without talking about the dance scenes. That would be like talking about “Fury Road” without the car chases. They aren't just highlights of the film; they are the film. From the moment Mike starts dancing while working on one of his furniture pieces to the final routine on the main stage at the end of the film, dance is the way these characters really speak. They're inarticulate off the stage, frustrated by where they are in their lives, but when they dance, they are the center of the universe, adored and desired and powerful.

By inverting the specific type of objectification that Hollywood has done so well for so long, “Magic Mike XXL” forces you to really see what it looks like… only something else happens that proves that it's not a simple case of “everyone acts the same way.” When you see these women in these dance sequences, flooding the air and the dancers and the floor with dollar bills, there's a beautiful feeling here that something is being taken back. Last year, I was at Comic-Con with a close friend, and watching the way men reacted to her and treated her, it was disturbing. What was more disturbing was using that experience as a jumping off point in a larger conversation with many of my female friends and realizing how utterly ordinary what I saw was. There is a power in this because these women are used to being the focus of unwanted attentions, or of being judged the way people judge a cut of meat. There is an ugly world that women are forced to navigate that I can understand only on an intellectual level. I'll never fully experience it or understand what it does to you over time, but I know when what I'm seeing is a challenge to that status quo. That's what makes “Magic Mike XXL” more than just a solid sequel. Taken on its own, it is a smart and genuinely hot film about some very real things, told in a way you rarely see in mainstream Hollywood films. I'm frankly kind of amazed the ratings board didn't have a more extreme reaction to it, because female pleasure has traditionally been a flashpoint for them.

The film was shot by Peter Andrews, the not-remotely-secret pseudonym for Steven Soderbergh, and his influence can be felt on every scene. The way he shoots the movie is a big part of why it works, and it really showcases the actors, giving them room to play and live and breathe and make the characters feel real.

Slight in the right ways and surprisingly thematically robust, “Magic Mike XXL” is better than one would expect, and in many ways, better than it needs to be. It opens in theaters everywhere tomorrow.