Does anyone else remember Steven Soderbergh's announcement that he was giving up on movies? It's an odd sort of retirement, given that he's turning them out faster than ever. After Contagion and Haywire (both 2011) here comes Magic Mike, which is either a shrewd workplace drama or the male answer to Showgirls, depending on your taste. By day the eponymous Mike (Channing Tatum) is a construction worker in Tampa, Florida; by night he's a male stripper at Club Xquisite, delighting young women with his bump'*'grind routines in exchange for the dollar bills they shove down his pants.
Well, it's a living, though apparently not the one Mike would prefer. He wants to run a customised furniture business but can't raise the necessary capital. In the meantime, he's taken a 19-year-old drifter named Adam (Alex Pettyfer) under his wing and introduced him to the team of "cock-rocking" strippers at the Xquisite. Pushed out on stage at short notice, the novice wows the hen-night crowd and quickly becomes a favourite. The backstage camaraderie and the after-hours hijinks owe their authenticity to Tatum, a one-time stripper before he turned to acting (and producing), while choreographer Alison Faulk works overtime in drilling the dancers to a raunchy T. Soderbergh observes the stage numbers in much the same straight-faced way that Paul Verhoeven did in Showgirls and suggests that, beyond the bare-bummed vulgarity, these people are dedicated and hard-working professionals.
That may be true, of course, but once the dancing's done the film needs to crack on with some drama. One promising source is Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), the club's rootin'-tootin' impresario and MC, flitting between his muscled minions in the dressing room and the screaming women out front. Adam, "the kid", looks to be set up for a fall once drug-dealing becomes his sideline. As for Mike, he's torn between a love of the good life and the love of a good woman, Adam's protective older sister Brooke (Cody Horn), who reads hardback books and regards stripping with a bemusement bordering on disdain. Their budding attraction is caught via a long beach scene shot in elegant movements by Soderbergh, so elegant you wonder why the script is so starved of wit and thrust. At first I thought it might be improvised, but the credits attribute it to Reid Carolin, partner in Tatum's production company.
That is the film's undoing in the end. Having set up the tacky-tinselly milieu and gathered some potentially interesting characters, Magic Mike doesn't know where to go with them. McConaughey shows Tom Cruise of Rock of Ages how preening narcissism should be done, but it's a minor role – a sideshow. Pettyfer follows an all-too-familiar path from ingénu to burnout with not much nuance in between. Tatum, a better dancer than he is an actor, struggles to impose himself as Mike, and one looks in vain for the leading man Hollywood believes him to be. His romantic scenes, with a fly-by-night named Joanna (Olivia Munn – great) and later Brooke, are sweet without conveying any extraordinary charm, let alone "magic". Whatever it is that Soderbergh sees in him hasn't energised this featherweight cautionary tale.
All-male athleticism finds a rather different expression in Chariots of Fire, back on the blocks 31 years since it first appeared. Time has been kind to it, if not to its cast. As the camera tracks the white-clad runners along the shoreline and Vangelis's epic music rises and swells, the credits slide down names that belong to another lifetime. Ian Charleson and Brad Davis, both dead from Aids-related illnesses; John Gielgud and Lindsay Anderson, as the slyly anti-Semitic Cambridge masters of college, also long gone; Ben Cross and Alice Krige are still around, though seldom seen. Even screenwriter Colin Welland, who announced on winning his Oscar that "the British are coming", perhaps paid for his hubris by virtually disappearing from the scene thereafter.
So a double layer of nostalgia is at work here, a film about character and principle in sport, forested with faces that look heartbreakingly young – too young to die. Welland's story of class and integrity is a direct mailshot to us, but one wonders how the Americans ever fell for it, given that the most famous triumphs at the Paris Olympics of 1924 were British ones. Maybe its appeal lies in the two central performances: the humility of Charleson's Eric Liddell, the missionary's son whose faith could not allow him to run on the Sabbath, contrasted with the intensity of Cross's Harold Abrahams, the Cambridge-educated Jew who longed to give the Protestant establishment one in the eye. The two men hardly meet in the story, yet they're always united in their drive and sense of destiny, throwing themselves into the cauldron of competition as if their lives depended on it. "When I run, I feel His pleasure", Liddell says. It helps that Charleson and Cross have great period faces to go with their lean athletic bodies.
There are smaller pleasures in the margins: Nigel Havers and Nicholas Farrell as impossibly fresh-faced chums and sprinters; Ian Holm as the trainer Mussabini, putting a triumphant fist through his straw boater on learning that his man has won; and the mild villainy of Anderson's master as he censures Abrahams for hiring a track man ("Your approach, may I say, has been a little too plebeian"). Strangely, what fails as drama are the races themselves, shot front-on so that we don't know who's winning until the tape is breasted, but Hugh Hudson's decision to use slow motion and David Watkin's beautiful lighting lend them a proper heroic burnish. And you'll never forget that Vangelis theme. Chariots of Fire was a false dawn. The Brits weren't coming, they were just passing. But it was fun while it lasted.