"Magic Mike," starring Channing Tatum as a stripper making the most of his assets, brings all the beef you might expect, but has plenty going on upstairs, too. It's not an overly musky romance, but a window into a much-mocked subculture, more "Saturday Night Fever" than "Dirty Dancing." It's one of the year's best surprises, and so is its frequently underrated star.

Though unmistakably directed by Steven Soderbergh in his subversive-chic style, "Magic Mike" belongs to Tatum, playing an older version of the teenage Tampa stripper he briefly was. (He also co-produced with writer Reid Carolin.) That may be why this film feels so authentic, with details no outsider's research could provide. Tatum's Mike, roughly 30, lives the wild life: We first see him waking after a threesome. But unlike young Adam (Alex Pettyfer), the newest recruit to Tampa's Club Xquisite, Mike is saving his sweaty singles to start his own business.

Much of the freaky fun in "Magic Mike" comes from the blush-worthy dance sequences, choreographed with low-rent panache by Alison Faulk (currently handling Madonna's 2012 tour) and performed without a shred of embarrassment by Joe Manganiello as the well-endowed Richie, and Kevin Nash as the near-simian Tarzan, among others. Matthew McConaughey, as the club's leather-harnessed ringmaster, Dallas, delivers a born-for-this performance and nearly steals the show with a spread-legged striptease to KISS' "Calling Dr. Love."

But it's Tatum who carries the film, not just with his sculpted muscles but with a sensitive, almost heartbreaking performance. Adam's sister, Brooke (Cody Horn), keeps him at arm's length, and even his regular booty call, Joanna (Olivia Munn), tells him to shut up and "just look pretty." Like the porn stars in "Boogie Nights," Mike doesn't realize where he ranks until the world reminds him.

PLOT A veteran male stripper takes a naive newcomer under his wing RATING R (pervasive sexual content, brief graphic nudity)

CAST Channing Tatum, Alex Pettyfer, Matthew McConaughey, Cody Horn

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PLAYING AT Area theaters

BOTTOM LINE This smart, funny, compassionate look at a well-oiled subculture is a worthy heir to "Saturday Night Fever," and one of the year's best surprises.

Male flesh in the movies

"Magic Mike" makes us think of these four great moments in beefcake history:

THE VOLLEYBALL GAME IN "TOP GUN": Those Navy pilots may have felt the need, the need for speed in this 1986 time capsule of Reagan-era patriotism. But when Tom Cruise and the rest of the young, buff cast participated in a little cardio fun on the beach, it had pulses besides theirs racing.

PATRICK SWAYZE'S PRIVATE LESSONS IN "DIRTY DANCING": When Jennifer Grey's character, Baby, sneaks off to Swayze's cabin for a conversation, he holds her in his arms -- just look at those guns -- as she sways to Solomon Burke singing "Cry to Me."

BRAD PITT HITCHES A RIDE IN "THELMA & LOUISE": Pitt went from relative unknown to overnight sensation after playing a lanky drifter who rocks Thelma's world with his washboard stomach and smooth talking in this 1991 classic.

THE SHIRTLESS MEN OF "DANCING WITH THE STARS": Never have so many muscular guys sacrificed so much cotton and polyester for the entertainment of female viewers. As exemplified by ballroom pro Maksim Chmerkovskiy, the dancer most likely to go topless, and perfected most recently by last season's contestant William Levy.

-- Detroit Free Press