(On-demand Video, November 2012) This could have been a disposable film in so many ways. There isn’t much, on paper, to distinguish Magic Mike from countless other similar cookie-cutter films: This may be about a young man’s initiation to the quasi-criminal world of dance (er: male stripping), but we’ve seen variations on that tale so many times that the film could have chosen the tried-and-true dance-or-crime-movie formula. But it doesn’t and it’s not entirely because of director Steven Soderbergh’s steadfast refusal to play by the usual rules. Never mind the long takes, over-filtered cinematography, pseudo-realist camera work or extended dance/strip numbers: Magic Mike is perhaps more interesting in the choices it makes as a script. While this is partly about an initiation into male stripping, the lead character is the one trying to get out. While this may be a romance, it’s one that barely begins by the time the credits roll and all the other subplots remain unfulfilled. While the characters are recognizably archetypes, they defy cliché and transcend their narrative functions by becoming fully-featured creations. Then there’s the drawn-out stripping numbers, which are far more about dance and musical choreography than about bare male flesh. (Ironically for a film about male stripping, the most noteworthy nudity is a topless Olivia Munn. Well, that and a prominent pump thankfully off-focus.) Fortunately, Magic Mike can count upon a few exceptional performances to, ahem, flesh out the characters. Matthew McConaughey extends his range a bit farther by playing a slimy stripper/manager, his usual bare chest covering a darker character than usual. But it’s Channing Tatum, in the wake of the surprisingly-good 21 Jump Street, who impresses the most as a “stripper/entrepreneur” conflicted between easy money and self-respect. Alex Pettyfer also turns in his least annoying performance yet in what is assuredly his best movie so far. Magic Mike certainly isn’t perfect (Soderbergh’s directorial choices easily cross over from “clever” to “showy”, leading one to wonder if he’s even capable of being mainstream) and the inconclusive finale seems a bit too focused to satisfy, but it all amounts to a surprisingly better film than any plot summary may suggest.