For a decade or so, we’ve all been able to sketch Channing Tatum’s buttocks from memory. There they were, in and out of a thong in Magic Mike and its sequel, making an unbilled cameo in Foxcatcherand roundly eclipsing their owner in The Vow. It’s no wonder they’re the centerpiece of his new film by him, an action-adventure-romcom called Lost City and co-starring Sandra Bullock. The buttocks in question appear midway through, as if carved out of marble, a swarm of leeches clinging onto them for dear life. Bullock is tasked with pulling off each and every one, and she squirms and mugs with that charming way she has. But it is Tatum, her younger her and not quite as a celebrated scene partner, who leaves you in awe. Here’s one of Hollywood’s most unexpectedly versatile actors, flexing his body and his range of him, and kindly offering up his glutes for giggles.
Lost City is Tatum’s second massive hit of 2022, following dog, a war veteran weepie that’s already made five times its budget in the US (although it didn’t get much of a release here). For an original movie to make money at the box office amid the superhero glut and a pandemic is unusual enough. To have two in rapid succession is surely a wizardry. But it speaks to the distinct and increasingly unusual space Tatum has found himself in after nearly two decades of fame: universal approval. It’s partly a product of good business sense, Tatum having cultivated a vast, diverse fanbase thanks to his bro-y comedies (21 Jump Street), romances (dear john), prestige movies (Hail Caesar!) and odd fusions of sun-kissed drama and crotch-thrusting rock show (the Magic Mike industrial complex). Most significantly, though, it’s down to his oft-underestimated charisma of him, which crochets sexuality and sensitivity, brains and brainlessness. No one does it quite like him.
In Lost City, Tatum plays a model named Alan, who moonlights as Dash McMahon, the star of a series of romantic bestsellers written by Bullock’s blocked novelist. He graces their dust jackets, makes appearances at book signings, and vamps for horny readers in a long, blonde wig and an unbuttoned shirt. However, beneath all that bluster is a beautiful dunce who strives to be taken seriously, or at least be perceived as anything but a meathead himbo. It goes without saying: Alan is Dash is, sort of, Channing Tatum.
Reducing Tatum to that narrative does him a disservice, though. Ever since he pirouetted through the streets in the mid-Noughties dance movie step-up – five sequels and a TV spin-off inexplicably followed – Tatum has deliberately tangled with his perception as a sentient sirloin steak. At first, it wasn’t easy. His early roles of him bear the thrum of a shaky actor just happy to be working. There he is as a monosyllabic jock in an Amanda Bynes movie (She’s the Man), or as a gruff outsider mumbling through poor dialogue (forgotten high school dramas such as Havoc and Coach Carter). It made sense that Hollywood didn’t see a movie star. Tatum had the face of an Abercrombie & Fitch floor model; someone who could conceivably play the silent, brooding love interest in a Mariah Carey video. As an actor, he was really going to be in anything other than a G.I. Joe movies? But then something miraculous happened. An amateur video from Tatum’s past appeared on a US tabloid site, and everyone suddenly asked the same question: wait, this guy used to be a stripper?
Tatum has a flamboyant history. He was a working-class drifter from Florida, whose body was his instrument. It seemed inevitable that it would be the root of his money making him. As a teenager with a limited education – ADHD and dyslexia had meant school was a struggle – he found work as a roofer, a cleaner and, for a few months in 1998, an exotic dancer known as “Chan Crawford”. When footage emerged just over a decade later, of “Chan” snaking around a grubby stage in a silver thong, Tatum’s managers wept – Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt never had to explain away pre-fame sex work, after all. But Tatum quickly realized that, at that point in his career, his past was the most interesting thing about him. Yes, it was a bit cringe, but – most importantly – he was really, really good at shimmying and body-popping while barely dressed.
Embracing it instead of running away from it was his smartest move. “I can’t say I would want Leo’s career, or Brad’s career, or Daniel Day-Lewis’s career,” he told Vanity Fair in 2013. “I don’t think I can do half the things those guys do. I’m just trying to be me, and I don’t know what that is half the time.”
There is a direct through line between Tatum’s stripper video and the blossoming of his movie career. The one-two punch of 21 Jump Street and Magic Mike in 2012 – the latter a self-produced drama inspired by his time as “Chan Crawford” – allowed Tatum to be scrappy and vulnerable rather than pouty and taciturn. In 21 Jump Street, he’s a beefcake cop, pretty of face but small of smarts. There is a giddy, endearing enthusiasm to his performance of him, something tapered down but equally present in Magic Mike. There, he plays a dancer dreaming of building his own custom-furniture empire, and possesses an ineffable, empathetic quality that makes you root for him.
Tatum’s best work sits in that field. In 2014’s Foxcatcher, he quietly steals the show as a lonely Olympian who has built up his body but forgotten to develop everything else. He plays real-life wrestler Mark Schultz as a self-punishing caveman, whose loneliness makes him an easy mark for bad people. You spend the entirety of the film wanting to give him a hug. Even if Tatum’s co-star Steve Carell – buried under distracting prosthetic make-up – got the lion’s share of kudos for Foxcatcher, the film is the purest distillation of Tatum’s greatness. He has a lumbering gait and the body of Superman, but also a heart of gold. It’s a potent mix of brute masculinity and delicate guile.
When a Tatum vehicle doesn’t achieve lift-off, it’s usually because that quality is absent. The GI Joe franchise, the action thriller White House Down and the ill-fated Wachowski movie Jupiter Ascending aren’t tailored to their leading man. In those films, he could be easily swapped out for Liam Hemsworth, Sam Worthington, or any one of the interchangeable white men Hollywood tried to psy-op to stardom in the past decade. They do n’t understand Tatum’s sensitivity to him, and neither satirize nor completely embrace the fact that he looks like a Baywatch cast member beamed out of 1995.
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Maybe if Tatum had greater control over those projects, they might have worked better. Because if the past decade has proven anything – beyond his current talent – it’s that Tatum is a fantastic self-marketer, with a keen understanding of his appeal and how best to exploit it. Magic Mike begat a series of films and an internationally successful cabaret show, he posts copious thirst traps to his Instagram, and dog and Lost City both play into tried-and-tested actor modes from his earlier hits: the bruised lunk and the dim-bulb striver. They’re two smart moves, particularly after Tatum took five years off from films just as he began to risk overexposure.
And look at how I have promoted them. For a profile in Variety, I have posed like Derek Zoolander at a spiritual retreat: barefoot, melancholy, dressed in earth tones. One shot found him sitting on the floor and sketching in a notepad, as if he’s Jack in titanica, or a dewy-eyed Hollywood waif being privately creative in his log cabin. He discussed creativity, sculpture and trauma. For a profile in V Man, he got his bum out. Never for one second suggest that Channing Tatum does not know his audience about him.
‘The Lost City’ is in cinemas from Wednesday (13 April)