Last Dance thereby puts the tin lid on this series's ever-icky relationship with capital, but the tragic irony is that very little has been spent on it; the luxury budgets of its maker's Ocean's movies now seem a lifetime ago. (The new film was originally greenlit as another of Soderbergh's recent HBO Max-bound works-for-hire; Tatum's stardom appears to have earned it a theatrical run.) Soderbergh reassumes control of the franchise by tearing Mike away from stripping, and those oiled-up brothers-in-thongs who provided the joshing backbone of MMXXL. (They're seen here but fleetingly, in a cursory Zoom call.) Now our hero is packed off to London on the arm of sugar mama Salma Hayek Pinault, who promptly marches into the theatre she owns, fires those she finds rehearsing a staid drawing-room melodrama there, and announces her plans to open an all-male revue in its place: Magic Mike Live, essentially, complete with dancers from the actual troupe. As a narrative rather than a pretext for a promotional video, nothing about this is plausible, but if you've been upsold a glass of Pinot Grigio with your ticket, it may not matter. The idea, I think, is to give us, like wide-eyed Mike, a Rolls Royce ride from Liberty's to Fortnum's and back to the bright lights in time for curtain up. Soderbergh gets points for refusing to lay "London Calling" over the introductory montage, but wherever he stops, whatever action there is forever appears to have been hashed out on the spot. Last Dance has the sorry look of that least sexy thing: the cheap British film. (The poster should warn viewers: "From The Country That Gave You Sex Lives of the Potato Men".) With the arguable exception of the bump-and-grind opening that seals the Tatum-Hayek union, these images could have been recorded by any adult called Steven who happened to be living within a square mile of WC1 last spring and summer. Nobody's gaze is being catered to here.
Heading into Last Dance, I read some early responders - fans of the series - calling it out as among their gravest disappointments of 2023 so far. I can't confess to feeling that let down, but then I haven't been invested in this franchise as much as some. The new film is sort-of amiable in its shambling, although Mike's blank-faced passivity still strikes me as a liability in a motion-picture protagonist, and Hayek Pinault gives a very Hayek Pinault performance. Still, the whole can't help but feel like a badly missed opportunity. After two years of state-enforced quarantine and social distancing, the franchise's target demographic is likely to be horny indeed and hankering for a good time, yet Soderbergh returns this way only to shrug around the subject of desire - he's the wrong man for the job. (I'm assuming he stands to benefit financially from the live show, whether that will involve funding future experiments or easing him into a more prolonged and comfortable retirement.) Removing Mike from that fantasyland stripjoint and depositing him in cold, wet, emotionally frigid Brexitland feels like a misstep from the off: instead of "Pony", we get meandering scenes of rehearsal resembling those StreetDance movies where Frank Harper ran a youth club or some such, and some brief, forgettable shoulder-shaking on the top deck of the number 12 bus to Lambeth North. Not for the first time in this most eccentric and bewildering of careers, Soderbergh displays some funny-peculiar ideas when it comes to giving the public what they want. There are Marcus Brigstocke and Vicki Pepperdine cameos, if that's your kink, but whatever magic there was in this franchise has long gone - and I'm not so sure this filmography is ever going to get back in the black.
Magic Mike's Last Dance opens in cinemas nationwide today.