The Hidden Potential of Channing Tatum

With 'Logan Lucky' and other roles over the last five years, the actor has managed to change his own trajectory by tweaking his persona as a buff himbo.
Courtsy of Claudette Barius/Fingerprint Releasing/Bleecker Street; Warner Bros./Photofest

For all of his idiosyncrasies as a filmmaker, Steven Soderbergh has long thrived on collaborating with some of the biggest movie stars on the planet. After his indie beginnings transitioned into working with studios like Universal and Warner Bros., Soderbergh has often worked with a familiar group of A-listers, from George Clooney to Benicio Del Toro to Matt Damon. After a brief hiatus from features, Soderbergh is back this week with the laid-back, delightfully entertaining Logan Lucky, whose ensemble cast includes Daniel Craig, Riley Keough and the director’s latest and most interesting collaborator to date, Channing Tatum.

Over the last five years specifically, Tatum has managed to change his own trajectory as an actor and star by tweaking his persona as a buff himbo. Roles in boisterous comedies like 21 Jump Street and grim dramas like Foxcatcher suggested that Tatum understood how he was perceived and could skew that perception satisfactorily. But his work with Soderbergh over five films — including 2011's Haywire, 2012's Magic Mike, 2013's Side Effects and 2015's Magic Mike XXL (Soderbergh didn’t direct, but served as cinematographer and editor) — also suggests his complexities as a performer. Logan Lucky, in which Tatum plays Jimmy Logan, a struggling West Virginia man who decides to rob the bank vault underneath the Charlotte Motor Speedway during the Coca-Cola 600, highlights Tatum’s natural charisma and emphasizes the unrealized potential he can embody in the right role.

There’s a similar sense of squandered possibilities in Tatum’s biggest film with Soderbergh, Magic Mike. Inspired by Tatum’s earlier life as a male stripper, Magic Mike focuses as much on bumping and grinding at Xquisite Strip Club as it does on Mike trying to escape the club to do something more valuable with his life. (Magic Mike XXL has Mike return to his roots, at least for one last fling, with the suggestion that he enjoys it far more than his furniture business.) In Logan Lucky, Tatum’s character is all about lost opportunities: Jimmy used to be a football star in his small town with hopes of going to the NFL before a leg injury left him with a permanent limp. His choice to rob a bank — as lo-fi as possible, to the point of having a grocery-list-esque checklist of what to expect from committing such a crime — is primarily driven by his desire to seem like less of a layabout to his daughter and ex-wife, Bobbie (Katie Holmes).

The character of Jimmy Logan is a bigger stretch for Tatum than the characters in his other collaborations with Soderbergh, including Haywire and Side Effects. The suggestion that Jimmy used to be a big fish in a little pond is often undercut by his current reality; he’s laid off in the opening minutes, gets into a nasty bar fight that he’s losing before being aided by his one-armed brother (Adam Driver), and struggles to assert himself with his ex-wife and her loutish husband. Jimmy Logan is not, perhaps, as wild a leap for Tatum as a performer as it is for a bleach-blond Daniel Craig to play a Southern-fried convict here. But it’s part of a consistent push that Tatum has made when working with Soderbergh. The director is challenging him as much as he challenges himself.

In this respect, the Soderbergh-Tatum collaborations are close to equal to the films Soderbergh made with George Clooney in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The most recognizable Soderbergh films with Clooney as the lead are, of course, the slickly enjoyable Ocean’s trilogy (aside from a few winking jokes at Clooney’s age, there’s not much of a challenge there for the star). But Soderbergh’s remake of Solaris, made in between the first two Ocean’s movies, as well as the Elmore Leonard adaptation Out of Sight suggested that the filmmaker saw in Clooney the same potential to play darker, three-dimensional characters whose outward appearances belie a kind of pain beneath. Soderbergh has worked often with Matt Damon, but outside of the Ocean’s trilogy, Damon’s roles in films like The Informant! and Contagion are more varied without a common thematic thread.

Logan Lucky is, on the surface, a fun lark of a film and a welcome return to the big screen for Soderbergh. The film earns the inside-baseball moniker of “Ocean’s 7-11” in its depiction of a heist whose participants can’t begin to amass the resources or crew members that Danny Ocean was able to get together to rob a trio of casinos. But Tatum’s lead performance is a major part of why the film works as more than just a laid-back couple of hours at the movies. It’s further confirmation not only that Tatum has more layers than his earlier work may suggest, but also that that Soderbergh is one of the best living directors able to tie a movie star to a character that requires more than just a pretty face.

Color by Numbers: Steven Soderbergh: