Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
Written by Taylor Baker
We’re now 34 years into the once-retired Soderbergh’s career. A man who has simultaneously shirked definition but leaned into both the conventions of filmmaking and the genres he works within. Some of his greatest successes being a remake of “Oceans Eleven” (with some sequels) and “Erin Brockovich.” Each of which works through its conventionality to become something deeper. Leaning on character actors like Albert Finney, Andy Garcia, or Casey Affleck to conjure a world that is substantive. Those successes aren’t just convention though, they’re repurposed and reinterrogated with movie stars dressed like call girls (Julia Roberts in “Erin Brockovich”), contortionists (Qin Shaobo), and comedians (Bernie Mac) layering magnetism onto delicately crafted films. With movie stars and pop culture darlings front and center.
With the first outing of “Magic Mike” Soderbergh used his typical US-centric socioeconomic perspective to reexamine the gig economy for strippers after first delving into the broader subject of sex workers in 2009 with “The Girlfriend Experience.” “Magic Mike” wasn’t just a convenient way to look at the social and economic outliers, it was a direct way for Soderbergh to interpret the music and dance genre of cinema. Without the censors or society’s insecurities forcing him to dance around the fact that our dancers are dancing sexually on purpose for the audience’s money. As he would have had to in a classic Hollywood system wherein the genre was largely defined.
Where the first entry simply titled “Magic Mike” which Soderbergh directed had a general social malaise and was steeped in the consequences (which were particularly apparent in Florida) of the 2008 crash, “Magic Mike XXL” (the sequel, which Soderbergh served as the cinematographer of, but did not direct) was enlivened by Mike’s (Channing Tatum) need to be distracted after his fiance leaves him just as the movie begins. A bad thing happening right before the movie begins is a motif we’ll see writer Reid Carolin reuse for “Last Dance.” With that inciting incident “XXL” becomes both a road movie and a musical, or rather a musical on the road. “XXL” seemed to have freed Soderbergh in a way from the narrative constraints that belong to a director and allowed him and his camera to focus on celebrating and accentuating action, set pieces, bodies in motion, and be more in sync than ever with the dance choreography. In particular, spotlighting Tatum who has truly never looked better or been more of a star than in Soderbergh’s lens.
“Last Dance” sees yet another wrinkle added to Soderbergh’s exploration of physicality put to film. To get there he leans into some of the most painfully conventional tropes and commonalities his films have seen. Is it all his fault? No, but he certainly shoulders some of the blame alongside Carolin. Are these contrivances cute? Sure. In fact, nearly every plot machination such as the stage being 3/4 of an inch too high plays horrendously; it’s the character work, the physicality, and the camera that make the film soar. The recycling of a play to be a strip show, the repurposing of the lead character in the play to behave as the MC, the placement of Tatum’s last strip tease at the beginning of the film, and the eloquence of the climactic rain ballet near the end of the film that excites. And it’s Tatum that the film leans upon.
Mike’s carpentry business, something the character has been working at diligently since the first entry is one of many small businesses shuttered during the pandemic. As the film begins we see him as a bartender, walking along a dock in a private area. After a quick scolding by some young and imperious man wearing a vest he returns to his post (the bar) and by the end of the night is summoned to speak with the proprietor of the charity event he tended bar for. The one and only Salma Hayek. Seemingly charmed by Hayek’s vulnerability Mike is coaxed into dancing for her, and we the audience see Mike (Tatum) dance for the last time. Not that we knew that as it happened. That dance becomes the defining moment of rebellion and rebirth for the wealthy Hayek’s Maxandra a soon-to-be divorcee that seems to have (through her marriage) more money than God.
Following the events of that night, Mike finds himself with Maxandra in London where she assures him that she’s about to show him his calling. After some back and forth we see the surprise, and if you’re invested at all in the character of Mike particularly the one that wanted equity from McConaughey’s Dallas in the new Miami club in the inaugural entry of the series then this does feel like a loving and fitting exit for our character. Over the course of the production he balances and interplays against Maxandra to great effect. Entangled as cocreators of a play that has four weeks to be made and potential lovers.
In “Magic Mike’s Last Dance” Tatum’s nonchalance, sincerity, and general cool guyness are accentuated both by Soderbergh and the screenplay. Where we see Tatum thrust into the role of a theater director in a film, that sees Soderbergh directing one of his closest collaborators who was murdered to create the foundation of “Side Effects,” instrumental in Soderbergh “unretiring” with “Logan Lucky,” and there when Soderbergh delved into long-shot action sequences in “Haywire” built around Gina Carano’s ability to not need a stunt double in fight sequences. One might even say that in some ways Tatum could be viewed as a stand-in for Soderbergh, who use to act in his own films.
Whether conscious or unconscious Soderbergh is reexamining, and redefining his own storytelling and cinematic grammar. His films with Tatum examine masculinity, socioeconomic circumstances, and mental health, or allow him to redefine himself. Sometimes it’s all four as was the case with “Logan Lucky” this may be Mike’s last dance but it certainly isn’t Tatum and Soderbergh’s.
And for those who were frustrated by Soderbergh’s recent slew of iPhone films his return to full-fledged digital cinematography with anamorphic lenses will be a welcome sight. A classically informed reference laden musical set in a theater with a battalion of dancers is certainly not how most of us predicted the “Magic Mike” series of films to end, and that’s precisely what makes Soderbergh so enigmatic and engaging.
“Magic Mike’s Last Dance” Trailer