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[Photo: Warner Bros.]

The first Magic Mike was a pleasant, well-made, straightforward comedy-drama about work and personal aspiration that also just happened to be about male strippers. The stripping was the big marketing hook, but it wasn’t really the focal point of the story.

Magic Mike XXL totally flips this idea. Here, the story is an excuse for strip sequences, of which there are many. On paper, it shouldn’t work. This movie doesn’t seem like it should exist, but the result is a gangbusters good time. Magic Mike XXL is the best film of the summer that doesn’t have a flamethrower guitar in it (unless you think of “flamethrower guitar” as a euphemism for … *ahem*).

Three years after Mike Lane (Channing Tatum) quit the stripping game to run his own custom furniture business, he finds himself lured back into the company of his old clothes-optional comrades for one last ride. The Kings of Tampa — Richie (Joe Mangianello), Ken (Matt Bomer), Tito (Adam Rodriguez), and Tarzan (Kevin Nash) — are headed to a male stripper convention in Myrtle Beach for one last tearaway pants hurrah. But as amazing as a sports movie about a male stripping competition sounds, the journey, and not the destination, is what MMXXL is all about. Mike and company stop in with various groups to hang out, crack jokes, and, of course, dance their clothes off to music.

The plot has abandoned all traditional notions of good form, but it astonishingly manages to never wear out its welcome, even over a near-two-hour running time. This is a film that commits 100 percent to hot bodies and FUN, and it won’t let anything get in the way of that. It doesn’t matter that most of its scenes are diversions that could vanish without affecting the overarching whole; the diversions are the point, and to lose them would be to lose what makes it distinct.

Magic Mike director Steven Soderbergh has not returned to the helm for the sequel — his longtime assistant director Gregory Jacobs has been handed the reins — though he is reprising his role as cinematographer and editor. Jacobs proves more than up to the task, and he, Soderbergh, Reid Carolin’s script, and the cast make looseness feel purposeful. The viewer gets sucked into the hangout atmosphere along with the characters. And when the lights go down and the music starts, it is pure experience. Powerful bodies are put into extraordinary motion, in a delightful variety of ways. Male and female, black and white — all are subject to the movie’s hyper-sexual gaze. This is to dance what Mad Max: Fury Road is to screaming metal.

The entire cast is marvelously game. Each of the Kings gets their own sweet little subplot about their hopes and dreams. Matthew McConaughey’s absence is more than made up for by the presence of Jada Pinkett Smith, playing an old friend of Mike’s who agrees be their new emcee. Smith commands a room with an aura like that of a goddess incarnate in flesh. To see her here is to question why she isn’t in more movies and/or our President-Queen.

The first film had its compunctions about the stripping scene, what with drug dealing and seedy backroom sex partying. This one gleefully tosses all that out the window, the same way Tito does to the group’s worn-out costumes after they decide that they won’t do the same old routines they established under the reign of the now-gone Dallas (McConaughey’s character).

Is that less intellectually honest? Probably. But it’s been sacrificed in the name of breathtaking emotional highs, so no one should miss it. Here, the idea of a male entertainer as an agent come forth to make women feel good about themselves has been given an almost Utopian power. There is no problem that can’t be solved by a set of abs asking someone what they want. “My god is a she,” Mike tells his new love interest, Zoe (Amber Heard). There’s no better venue to worship than whatever theater near you is playing Magic Mike XXL.

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