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If dry fucking was an art, Channing Tatum would be Picasso

Max and Mike (Salma Hayek and Channing Tatum) share a moment in a scene from Magic Mike's Last Dance.  (Warner Bros. Entertainment - photo credit)

Max and Mike (Salma Hayek and Channing Tatum) share a moment in a scene from Magic Mike’s Last Dance. (Warner Bros. Entertainment – photo credit)

In order. Cards on the table time.

I thought of 2012 Magic Mike was a surprisingly great film and dare I say a deep piece of filmmaking. Beneath the bump n’ grind and baby oil was a straight-eyed look at the victims of the American Dream. I described it as “that scarface of male stripper films.”

For the continuation of 2015 Magic Mike XXL , director Steven Soderbergh resigned from directing. The result was a kind of road movie vibe, but some of the magic had faded.

Well, here we are. Channing Tatum and Soderbergh reunited for the unlikely third installment. When we first meet Tatum’s character, Mike, he’s back serving drinks as a bartender in Miami. The pandemic decimated his fledgling furniture business and now he’s just a gig worker. But after the event, Maxandra, the wealthy hostess played by Salma Hayek, learns from a friend that there is another service that Mike used to provide.

Warner Bros. Entertainment

Warner Bros. Entertainment

A brief negotiation follows. A price is agreed. First, Mike rearranges the furniture and verifies the structural integrity of certain supporting items. Then she gets the one-on-one Magic Mike treatment.

In the world of dance there are masters. The wit and flair of Tapmaster Gregory Hines. Siphesihle November from the National Ballet of Canada never ceases to amaze me with its power and grace.

Then there’s Channing Tatum. If dry fucking was an art, it would be Picasso. As evening fades into night, Mike invites Max to a master class in bump n’ grind. They’re both fully clothed, but it’s sensual and seductive, and when it’s all over Max is so moved that she invites him to accompany her across the pond to London.

This brings us to the heart of the story. Max is a wealthy socialite in the middle of divorce proceedings who hires Mike to do a show at a theater she currently controls. Mike, who’s been through many things in his life from carpenter to stripper, is now promoted to artistic director of a bold new show for London’s West End.

Warner Bros. Entertainment

Warner Bros. Entertainment

Magic Mike’s Last Dance begins with a steamy duet and culminates in a rousing cabaret-style show. Halfway through, as the film focuses on Mike and Max, the magic begins to fade. We’re meant to feel the tension as Mike lives under Max’s roof and works for her in a platonic capacity. There is even a little Up down Nonsense when Mike shares the apartment with Victor, Max’s snarky butler, and Kim, her adopted daughter.

But it all feels so contrived. Gone is the harshness of the original, replaced by watered-down romcom clich├ęs. So how did we get here?

As he said in an interview with Vulture a few years ago, director Steven Soderbergh had been working on a Broadway show. Magic Mike the early years. Meanwhile, Channing Tatum and his dance partner had created live theatrical versions of Magic Mike in Las Vegas and London.

On a fateful night, Soderbergh was watching the London Revue. You can see a teaser trailer below. There’s not much of a story, but abs galore and more grinding than a Starbucks during the morning rush. Somehow that inspired the director to shelve the Broadway project and make a film that is essentially the origin story of the London show.

Which explains why the love story is so limp. What Soderbergh is clearly excited about this time around is the process. The auditions. The brainstorm. The business behind the scenes. While there’s a comfortable ease to watching Mike discover and connect with his dancers, the third film lacks the camaraderie and memorable characters that made the first two films a fun hang.

With Tito, Big Dick Richie and others relegated to a brief cameo, the focus shifts to putting on a show framed as a celebration of female pleasure.

Now you may be wondering if a chorus line of dry hobbling he-men is exactly what women want. But as the camera pans across the mostly female audience and jeers and yells, the fun is contagious.

And then there is this one dance.

Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

A version of a water-soaked number from the live show starring Channing Tatum and American ballerina Kylie Shea. As the water pours in, Tatum and Shea violently slide and slide over each other and across the stage, reminiscent of Pina Bausch’s raw kinetic dances.

Then Soderbergh, who directed, edited and filmed Last Dancebegins to merge the dancer’s movements with earlier moments between Max and Mike – and cuts between the bodies slamming together and the characters moving apart.

Soderbergh used a similar non-linear editing style to great effect for the dinner/bedroom scene between Jennifer Lopez and George Clooney in Out of sight.

Here it works so well for a moment that the superficial relationship between Max and Mike suddenly seems substantial. The power of dance.

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