In the last few years, I’ve noticed a funny trend. My friends and I will be talking affectionately about Channing Tatum’s movies—usually, the Jump Street films—and the other person will suddenly get quiet, like he’s about to make some dark, embarrassing confession to me. “You know, what?” he’ll invariably say, almost sheepishly. “I actually think Channing Tatum’s ... a really good actor.”

Your secret is safe with me, fellas—I’m right there with you. It’s a small sample size, of course, but these nervous confessions seem to be provoked by a sense that Tatum shouldn’t be the sort of actor one takes seriously. He’s too pretty. He’s got the physique of a muscle-bound frat guy. He first came to most people’s attention in a silly dance movie. So how come in the nine years since starring in Step Up has he become one of Hollywood’s biggest and most reliably entertaining A-list stars—to say nothing of someone who can pull of a performance as layered as he did in Foxcatcher? Sure, he makes the occasional White House Down. But in his best roles, he smartly subverts the negative assumptions we have about him based on his looks. Lots of people can play dumb, but few do it as craftily as Tatum.

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These thoughts bounced around in my head while watching Magic Mike XXL, which isn’t as fun and surprisingly emotional as the 2012 original. But it’s still pretty good, and a lot of the credit goes to Tatum. His titular stripper was the ostensible main character of the first film, but most people remember Magic Mike because of Matthew McConaughey’s gloriously ballsy, Oscar-worthy performance as Dallas. But with McConaughey (and Alex Pettyfer’s the Kid) not in XXL, more of the sequel’s dramatic weight falls on Tatum’s broad shoulders. He carries it without breaking a sweat.

Even more so than the first Magic Mike, XXL is a full-blown musical: It’s a road-trip movie where, intermittently, everybody dispenses with plot and a strip-scene breaks out. Of course, the character connects Tatum to his pre-Hollywood fame when he was just a young stripper trying to make a living. By 2006, he had started landing roles in movies like She’s the Man, but it was Step Up that suggested the kind of star he could become. The first installment in that progressively more outlandish dance-drama franchise remains a lovably dopey, dorky boy-from-the-wrong-side-of-the-tracks love story. (It’s where he met his future wife, costar Jenna Dewan.) But the key to Step Up is that Tatum plays his character, Tyler, as if the adorable lunkhead doesn’t know what a palooka he actually is. Like Dewan’s Nora, we’re taken aback by this lug with the balletic grace and offhand charm because he doesn’t look like he should possess any of those things.

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It’s Tatum’s exploiting of our low expectations that’s been his secret weapon ever since. By his appearance, he ought to be the Channing Tatum who stars in dumb G.I. Joe movies—which even he admits are terrible—and for a while it did look like he’d be stuck doing sappy, tear-jerking romantic dramas. (Although, to be fair, he makes 2012’s The Vow a lot better than it has any right to be.) But two others films from that year better harnessed what makes Tatum stand apart from other stars of his era. First was 21 Jump Street, a seemingly unnecessary reboot of the old Johnny Depp TV series that ended up being one of the funniest comedies of recent times. And a big part of its success is that directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller spend a large chunk of the film mocking Tatum’s big-doofus persona.

A former high school meat-head jock, Tatum’s Greg Jenko has grown up to discover how little use the adult world has for that type of guy, becoming a cop mostly because he thinks it sounds badass. Partnered with high school loser Morton Schmidt (Jonah Hill), Jenko goes undercover to infiltrate a teenage drug ring, quickly learning that all his antiquated notions of what constitutes popularity—basically, being a bigoted, ignorant jerk—make him the outcast in this new generation. Tatum’s bro-ness is a constant comedic punching bag in 21 Jump Street, and he makes it work to his advantage, playing a deliciously funny idiot. With his big forehead, dim eyes and deceptively pretty features, he turns Jenko into a dullard who learns how to become a nice guy once he’s ostracized by the cool kids.

It can be hard to play dumb—either you wink at the the audience so that we know you’re not dumb yourself, or you do it so convincingly you get pigeonholed—but Tatum pulled it off with such casual confidence that it was as if he knew what we secretly thought of him but didn’t care. One suspects that his path up the Hollywood ladder has been filled with plenty of encounters from those who doubted his depth.

Tatum’s other 2012 revelation was Magic Mike, the actor working with Steven Soderbergh (who had previously directed him in Haywire) to create a fictionalized version of his life as a Tampa stripper. It’s telling that Tatum even wanted to make a movie about his previous profession—other aspiring serious actors might have thought they should be embarrassed, considering stripping to be demeaning. But maybe that’s why the first Magic Mike succeeded: Tatum cared enough to elevate the potentially one-joke premise to something far more real. Playing Mike Lane, the guy with a thousand entrepreneurial ideas who, nonetheless, can’t stay away from the Peter Pan lifestyle of stripping, Tatum imbued the character with nuance. Mike’s a coarse, party-hearty manchild, but he’s also a good guy with a soft side. Plus, he’s one hell of a stripper, Tatum drawing on his dance training to convince viewers that he really is Tampa’s greatest male entertainer.

Magic Mike wasn’t a straight-up drama—it’s very funny—but Tatum gave his character’s belated coming-of-age a light touch. He’d get more serious for Foxcatcher, playing real-life wrestler Mark Schultz as a hulking, monosyllabic man who’s utterly lost outside the ring. Each of the movie’s three leads have tricky roles, but because Mark is the least expressive of the group, Tatum has to hint at the character’s brooding jealousy at his more-famous brother (Mark Ruffalo) and the needy rapport he has with John du Pont (Steve Carell), whom he sees as a father figure. As always, Tatum brings physicality to the performance, Mark’s mournful-giant demeanor suffocating the character like a straightjacket. Plenty of critics and audiences expressed surprise that Tatum was capable of such a performance. If they’d been paying attention, though, they’d realized such skill was there all along.

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Which brings us back to Magic Mike XXL. Early in the film, Mike, now three years removed from stripping, is alone in his workroom, finishing up something for his latest construction job. He’s got the radio on when, all of sudden, Ginuwine’s “Pony” comes on. He laughs at the same time we do: This was his signature tune from when he used to dance at the Xquisite. Just then, he leaps into his old dance routine, performing for no one except his own amusement, muscle memory taking over. It’s a triumphant, giddy moment, a reminder that Mike (like Tatum) is full of surprises.


Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.

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