When, in 2011, Steven Soderbergh announced his forthcoming retirement, film geeks pulled up his development slate on IMDb Pro to find that three of the great director's final four movies will star Channing Tatum — including this Friday's new medical thriller Side Effects.
If someone back then had drawn a Venn diagram of fans of Soderbergh's and fans of the Tatum-starring Step Up franchise, the overlap between circles would have been slight. Soderbergh followers knew, of course, that the filmmaker behind The Girlfriend Experience loved to work with non-actors, but, they thought, why does he insist on casting this one?
Might it be the fact that Soderbergh saw something in ex-dancer/model/stripper Tatum that few others did—namely, that he's really good? Increasingly, the answer appears to be "yes."
Their first collaboration, Haywire, snuck out in January last year. The movie's great — spare, fresh, elegantly constructed. And during scenes with star Gina Carano, a former MMA fighter, Tatum seemed kinda sorta fine, even well-suited for the role. That fleshy-faced physicality was still there.
That physicality always will be there, as he seemed to understand, without his having to puff up or so aggressively smolder. And so he acted against it, playing his contract agent as bored, exhausted, and impatient, thereby giving a tired film trope a new, human feel.
If watchers were intrigued by Tatum's turn in that film, they were then bowled over by what he did next, sans Soderbergh. 21 Jump Street, a ridiculous-sounding adaptation of a ridiculous '80s Teen Beat TV show, paired co-producers Tatum and Jonah Hill as Odd Couple buddy-narcs reliving high school to catch a drug dealer.
But it was astonishingly good, offering clear, bright, and zany Police Academy-style fun. What's more, Tatum, as a once-popular jock at odds with the new sensitive world order ("I blame Glee," he says, deadpan and disillusioned), was effortless, silly, and genuinely funny.
In just a few moments of screen time he'd done what Marky Mark has failed to do in 20 years: Stop taking himself so seriously.
It was a beautiful moment in a way, like watching an athlete find a new dimension to their skills during a break-out game.
But his real homerun was Soderbergh's Magic Mike. Tatum's performance has the confidence and messiness of the custom-built bachelor pad his titular character lives in. Even if he isn't playing himself line for line, he is an affable host, guiding us, in the same way Magic Mike shepherds Alex Pettyfer's neophyte stripper through a new and exotic world. Good evening, he seems to say, welcome to the show. Now let's do shots.
The dancing is obviously the centerpiece of the movie, but Soderbergh cobbles together unique little scenes that are particularly well-suited to Tatum. How many other major stars would or could do a back flip off the Sunshine Skyway bridge into Tampa Bay 50 feet below, for example, and would they have emanated the same blend of grace and desperation he did?
In the film's climactic scene, Soderbergh keeps in a take where Tatum unintentionally flubs his line ("I'm not my lifestyle — I mean, I'm not, am I Magic Mike right now talking to you?"). The error is perfect. After all, this is a performance of a performance, the kind of declaration of love delivered with the panic and excitement of revelation that causes you to stumble over your speech — the speech you'd maybe planned, maybe rehearsed, but now, in the moment, comes unraveled. Tatum fights through, weaving the monologue back together and finishing on a moment of gasping completion.
So who is Channing Tatum going to be, long term?