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Buddies, bodies and beats Magic Mike XXL'

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Jokes and gyrations abound in stripper sequel

I've done a lot of things in the name of movie criticism over the years. I have seen a lot of exceptional movies and a lot of terrible ones and even more in the middle. So it has become a rare thing for me to have anything that I would consider a new experience at the cinema, a wonderful occurrence that, good or bad, is a welcome shift in the status quo. I enjoyed one such shift recently.

I was the only man in the theater at a late showing of 'Magic Mike XXL.' And it was glorious.

Not only was the film a pleasant surprise goofy and engaging but I also got to enjoy a peek behind the gender curtain in terms of how certain movies are experienced by their viewers. It was a bit of cultural anthropology to go with my male stripper cinema; just a fascinating moviegoing experience.

As to the film itself, it's better than I expected.

Channing Tatum ('Jupiter Ascending') is back as the titular Magic Mike. He has gotten out of the male entertainment game, leaving the Kings of Tampa behind him. His custom furniture business is solvent, but struggling (though it's still in better shape than his relationship). But when some of the guys get back together for a trip to a stripper convention in Myrtle Beach for one last ride, as it were he finds himself drawn back into the fold.

Pretty much the whole gang is back from the first film Ken (Matt Bomer, TV's 'White Collar'), Richie (Joe Manganiello, 'Sabotage'), Tarzan (wrestler Kevin Nash) and Tito (Adam Rodriguez, 'About Last Night') and they're looking for one last hurrah. Stripping is a young man's game and they're looking to go out on their own terms; this road trip is a chance to do just that.

Along the way, they reconnect with old friends and make some new ones. Mike's path continues to cross with that of an aimless young lady named Zoe (Amber Heard, '3 Days to Kill') as they make their way up the coast. The gang also pays a visit to an establishment where Mike used to work, a place run by the enigmatic Rome (Jada Pinkett Smith, TV's 'Gotham').

And of course, they get to the conference and decide that if this truly is to be their last hurrah, then they will do it their way. They're going to go out there and entertain the way they have always wanted to do it. Through sweat and gyrations and rippling abdominal muscles, Magic Mike and the former Kings of Tampa find themselves.

The first 'Magic Mike' was a surprisingly poignant look at the highs and lows of a world that many of us consider to be a bit seedy. 'Magic Mike XXL' largely does away with the complex examinations of the lifestyle these men are already looking to find their way out, so there's none of the helplessness and surrender of the first film. Instead, this movie is nothing so much as a road comedy a bunch of buddies getting together after time apart to take a trip culminating in some sort of group goal.

It's pretty funny, too.

The absences of Matthew McConaughey and Alex Pettyfer barely register this movie doesn't need them and so barely acknowledges them (their characters have something going in Europe, I think; it legitimately doesn't matter). This is about the struggle to be who you want to be.

And not just Mike; Tatum is the ostensible star and he's very good, affable and still one hell of a dancer but it's the rest of them that really make this movie so fun and funny. Bomer's crackpot new-age weirdness, Tito's artisanal frozen yogurt plans, Tarzan's artistic dreams every one of them is imbued with depth that makes them all the more engaging.

But one member of the ensemble challenges even Tatum for control of the screen when he takes to it. Manganiello is outstanding as Richie, coming to terms with his advancing age and searching for 'the one' (I'm not going to spoil anything by revealing Richie's criteria, but know that there's a Cinderella analogy that is weirdly apt).

'Magic Mike XXL' is a different animal than the first film and that's OK. Judging by the reactions of the audience when I saw it particularly during the batst over-the-top finale the tonal shift was not only accepted, but celebrated. It's a spirited, fun movie that is probably the best-case scenario for this sort of a sequel.

[3.5 out of 5]

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