There was once a time when I referred to Channing Tatum as a “human hatstand,” so unimpressed I was with his lumbering screen presence and seeming lack of personality. There was also a time when I had not seen his bare ass, and I am glad to report that those dark ages have officially passed. As the title character of Steven Soderbergh‘s Magic Mike - inspired by Tatum’s former career as a young stripper – he reveals himself (literally) to be a charming and incredibly amiable leading man, with a physical grace and a commanding allure that is rarely seen amongst today’s batch of stars. The boy can move, and, in news that will be only barely significant to much of the audience, can act pretty well too.
Tatum isn’t the only one to make a successful comeback in the court of public opinion here. Former punch line Matthew McConaughey gives a deliriously entertaining, self-spoofing performance as Dallas, the reptilian, over-the-hill, and yes, eternally-shirtless owner of the Xquisite strip club frequented by Magic Mike and his pals every hot Tampa evening. Though Mike would much rather create and sell his offbeat carpentry creations than disrobe, he can’t quite walk away from the endless supply of cash, drugs, and drunken women hurled in his direction. At one of his many day jobs – he’s taking all he can get to save up for his own furniture business – he meets 19-year-old transient Adam (Alex Pettyfer); a short-sighted kid who squandered his football scholarship by punching the coach at the first training session. Currently living on his concerned sister Brooke’s (Cody Horn) couch, Mike invites him to show off his wares and make a bit of money on the side. Let the descent into depravity begin!
Soderbergh’s capacity to surprise audiences with a succession of bizarre filmic choices and varied genre jumps is unequalled in Hollywood, and though Magic Mike retains his signature lo-fi aesthetic and crisp, coolly detached camerawork, it evolves into a living, breathing sex machine during the raunchy dance sequences. Tatum, Pettyfer, and fellow ecdysiasts Matt Bomer and Joe Mangianello (as the aptly named Big Dick Richie) move with the kind of effortlessness usually reserved for ballerinas. The best act belongs to McConaughey, however, who ends his self-imposed retirement and hurls himself headlong into the adoring crowd at the film’s conclusion. Tatum comes a close second with a late angry strip, in which he vents his frustration at the manner in which Dallas continually shuts him out of further professional development. He literally dances it out with a ferocity that would make Kevin Bacon proud. It sounds silly, and it kind of is, but boy is it watchable.
The end of Adam’s innocence, Mike’s burgeoning romance with Brooke, and the inevitable downward spiral are among the picture’s least surprising elements, but they’re handled with freshness and nice understatement by screenwriter Reid Carolin. It also helps that Pettyfer and newcomer Horn are as natural and relaxed as Tatum. At one point, Mike – ditching his ‘Magic’ moniker in favour of Michael Long – heads to the bank with a stack of cash, hoping to secure a loan for his dream business despite having no credit to his name. His rejection by a sympathetic employee is a brief, effective nod to the ongoing American financial crisis that apparently even hurts the exotic dancing industry. It reminded me of the underlying GFC references in the not too dissimilar Warrior, perhaps the only other recent movie to show as much male flesh as Magic Mike.
Magic Mike arrives in Australian cinemas July 26, 2012.