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A True Movie Star: On the Career of Channing Tatum

What is a movie star? Everybody you ask will offer a different definition, but for me, the answer is Channing Tatum, who somehow emerged about 20 years ago from the ranks of backup dancers in music videos and soft drink ads to become the closest thing to an all-things-to-all-people male movie star in his age range. (He was born in 1980, which technically makes him a young Generation Xer, but his energy is more Millennial, so we’ll let both generations claim him.) He’s his own person but at the same time just enough of a blank that audiences can project identification and/or desire onto him. That’s the sweet spot that all stars hit, in their own way, and when Tatum is cast and directed just right, he hits it better than almost anyone except Brad Pitt—and it seems no surprise that the two of them ended up in the same movie, “The Lost City,” starring Sandra Bullock, another very versatile, very likable star, available on VOD today.

Tatum is stealthily effective in dramas, turning in convincing performances as a psychologically abused wrestler in “Foxcatcher,” a convicted insider trader in “Side Effects,” and a Roman soldier chasing his legion’s missing gold emblem in “The Eagle.” He’s got sufficient action-hero gravitas to anchor the “Die Hard”-derivative “White House Down”; an ex-commando lycanthrope in “Jupiter Ascending” who zips through the movie on jet-powered boots; a hustler turned street brawler in “Fighting,” and the leader of a gang of thieves in the Soderbergh heist picture “Logan Lucky” (imagine Danny Ocean as a former Kentucky coal miner turned disabled war veteran). Plug him into a very broad comedy, whether it’s “The Lost City” or the “21 Jump Street” films, and he’s so at-ease that if you’d never seen him do any other sort of genre, you might have a hard time imagining him in them. Most strikingly, Tatum is one of the only actors of the last 75 years who could plausibly be described as a musical star. He has anchored no less than two musical franchises, the “Step Up” and “Magic Mike” films (the latter were generated by Tatum, based on his experiences as a stripper in Florida). 

Tatum, who recently turned 40 but still has the brawny sunbeam energy of a goodhearted teenage surfer or skater, has proven himself to be not merely good but excellent at everything he’s been asked to do. And not only will you never catch him letting you know that he knows how good he is, he convinces you that he doesn’t know, either—like the movie hunk version of the cliche of the objectively gorgeous female ingenue who doesn’t know how attractive she is until somebody convinces her to let take her glasses off and let down her hair. Tatum is tall, beefy, and comic-book handsome (I’ll never forget the moment during a packed screening of “Magic Mike XXL” when a woman sitting near me whispered, “Oh, my lord!” when the film cut to a shot of his neck and shoulders). But he doesn’t carry himself like a preening movie star stud who surreptitiously checks himself out in every reflective surface he passes. 

Few modern male screen stars are as adept at being likable without seeming to pander. He never mistakes being sullen, self-regarding, degrading, or self-flagellating for having integrity as an actor. He’s done plenty of R-rated films, but you never get the feeling that he chose the material in order to establish himself as a serious actor or somebody who’s not interested in appealing to children. Tatum is not neutered or safe. He can play the swaggering alpha who commands the respect of his bros and the worshipful attention of every woman within sighting distance. The first “Magic Mike,” basically “Saturday Night Fever” with a stripper, proved that so decisively that it freed up the sequel to be a low-stakes lark about guys embracing their limitations and just having fun with life. 

But even when Tatum’s characters are domineering or self-regarding, there’s rarely a wantonly nasty or ugly aspect to his on-screen energy. A fundamental decency comes through no matter what. Whether he’s playing a man who’s selfishly cunning or sweet & dumb, the character always seems like the sort of person might pull over to help somebody fix a flat tire during a rainstorm rather than keep on driving (which creates the possibility of surprise no matter what). We might be at the point now where some enterprising director could cast Tatum as repugnant, brutal, and terrifying bad guy, if only for the shock value—like the way Sergio Leone cast Henry Fonda in “Once Upon a Time in the West”—or as an unhinged hero-turned-depraved antihero, in the vein of James Stewart’s performances for Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Mann. (Quentin Tarantino seemed like he might be willing to go there in “The Hateful Eight,” but Tatum was barely in the movie.) 

Writer-editor Emily Hughes summed up the light-magic charisma of Tatum in musicals and comedies: “Like a golden retriever cursed by a witch.” If, in fact, Tatum is a shape-shifter, it would explain why he has never obeyed W.C. Fields’ dictum “Never act with children or animals.” He’s an actor who brings overgrown-kid rambunctiousness to comic roles, and has always seemed at home playing opposite younger performers, even toddlers and babies who cannot be said to be capable of acting (the retriever remembers what it was like to be a puppy). And he’s thrown his filmmaker’s weight behind two separate (creatively intertwined) dog projects, the 2017 documentary “War Dog” and his 2022 directorial debut “Dog” (co-directed with Reid Carolin), a road picture about a former Army ranger (Tatum) escorting his fallen comrade’s dog to the man’s funeral. 

Tatum is a subtle and intelligent screen performer who can deliver comedic dialogue that’s self-aware, verging on “Saturday Night Live”-sketch catchphrase-cutesy, without seeming precious about it. I still laugh thinking of the moment in “22 Jump Street” when he ends a fight with his onscreen detective partner, Jonah Hill, by staring at him, soul-sick and seemingly on the edge of tears, and saying, “I think we should investigate other people.” A lot of his success in various genres comes back to what seems like a lack of self-regard. He doesn’t indicate, signal, underline, boldface, or otherwise make a point of telling you that he gets it, whatever “it” is. No matter who he’s playing, or what scene the character is entangled in, Tatum always defaults to seeming like he’s not in on the joke—or barely aware of it and not letting on because he fears he might not understand it, which is just as funny as being oblivious. One can imagine him reading this piece and then forgetting all about it on purpose, because self-consciousness is the last thing an actor, dancer, comedian, drama star, or action hero needs.

Matt Zoller Seitz

Matt Zoller Seitz is the Editor at Large of RogerEbert.com, TV critic for New York Magazine and Vulture.com, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism.

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