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Matt Damon Vs. Jeremy Renner

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Matt Damon Vs. Jeremy Renner

And now, the action spectacular you've been waiting for.

The Contestants

This Friday marks the release of the fourth movie in the Bourne franchise, The Bourne Legacy, and the first without Matt Damon as rogue agent Jason Bourne; Jeremy Renner is taking the reins. We may not get to see these two physically fight it out on screen, but we can pit them against one another with their best and worst roles.

The Best

Good Will Hunting

Obviously. Damon's charm helped round out a character who, let's face it, could have been off-putting. He even managed to sell that "How do you like them apples" thing, which… is not really a good comeback. (If you have to set up your own rejoinder, it's not actually witty.) But Damon's wounded soulfulness is palpable throughout the movie. Some of the film feels a bit hokey today, but the scene of Will's breakdown in the face of his childhood abuse is still touching.

The Talented Mr. Ripley

One of the first films to suggest that Damon can work well outside of the pretty-boy mold, The Talented Mr. Ripley finds him playing a pretty boy…who is fucking insane. Tom Ripley is a brilliant sociopath, and Damon plays his evolution from hapless wannabe to cold-blooded serial killer at just the right pace. At the start of the film, he's basically your weird roommate — the one who suggests you get matching tattoos after a month, or asks if he can borrow your underwear. And yet Damon makes it completely believable that such an odd duck can become the suave, cultured (though still crazy) man we see at the end of the film. It should go without saying that his Ripley is alluring (minus the psychopathy): just watch his performance of "My Funny Valentine."

The Informant!

Damon's talent for convincingly playing two very different sides of one person is exactly what Steven Soderbergh needed for The Informant!, a movie that begins as a comedy about a would-be whistleblower who finds himself in over his head. By the end, though, it's a painful look at a man suffering from an undiagnosed mental illness. (Yeah, you never saw that coming from the wacky trailer.) Damon can be hilarious, especially when playing dorks, and he holds his own against noted funny people like Joel McHale and Patton Oswalt. But the slide into the darker side of Mark Whitacre's psyche never feels forced; it's more like a glimpse behind the curtain of manic laughs at the frightened man making the jokes.

The Hurt Locker

Obviously. The Hurt Locker is the movie that put Renner on most people's radars. In a movie that is often unbearably tense — it's about diffusing bombs, after all — it helps to have a character like Sgt. William James, who's cocky and roguish and funny even in the middle of a war zone. Of course, we all know this character: the bad boy who is using a devil-may-care attitude to cover up his emotional pain. But Renner refuses to let his character become a type. Sure, all the aforementioned obvious stuff is there, but there's also tenderness, intelligence, and even some grace. Plus, the man can work an army uniform.

The Town

When Matt Damon steals on film, it's all tailored suits and gentlemanly gamesmanship. When Renner steals on film? He's going to put on a terrifying mask, hit you in the face with a semi-automatic, and grab as much cash as he can. His fiery turn as Boston bank robber Jem Coughlin earned Renner his second Academy Award nomination, and rightly so: it's hard to take your eyes off of Renner, who captures the aura of unease that surrounds a violent man with no desire to change his ways. Renner nails the balance between Jem's deeply ingrained fuck-you attitude and a sort of resigned calm about his inevitable fate, especially in the firefight that ends with his bloody death. His time on screen bubbles with an amazing sort of nervous energy — but you're the one who's nervous, not him.

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol

A.k.a., "Jeremy Renner's Audition for the Bourne Series." Yeah, we know the timing doesn't work out on that. But doesn't Ghost Protocol feel a bit like it was Renner's last test before headlining a big-budget action movie on his own? Thankfully, he nailed it. Renner brings a more restrained energy to his role as intelligence analyst William Brandt, and it not only plays well against Tom Cruise's more intense style, but also reins it in. Basically, Renner's performance stops the film from being the Tom Cruise Insanity Explosion Show that many feared it would be.

The Worst

The Legend of Bagger Vance

Matt Damon rarely gives a bad performance in a good movie, but some movies have so many problems, no one can escape their terrible gravity. Sports movies are hard to pull off even before you add in a Magical Negro stereotype, and sports movies about golf — which is an acquired taste, we can all agree — are even harder. (Unless they feature a gopher, obviously.) Bagger Vance looks good, but the story is dull and the emotions don't resonate. Damon never really inhabits his character, perhaps because there's not much character to inhabit, and even he can't make the transition from traumatized drunk to redeemed golf hero feel like anything close to real. The racial ickiness of the story casts an unfortunate light over the whole film, to be sure, but Damon does nothing to help himself.

The Brothers Grimm

It's frustrating to find moments of beauty and brilliance in what's otherwise a mess. But that's the cross Terry Gilliam fans have often had to bear. The Brothers Grimm sure looks pretty, and there are bright spots here and there, but Matt Damon's performance… is not one of them. The awful wig doesn't help, but neither does his specious British accent. While his co-star Heath Ledger sinks into his role reasonably well, Damon always feels like Damon in a bad wig with a bad accent. Something about his brand of humor (or at least the brand he brought to the table here) seems out of place in Gilliam's world, and his comedic moments feel jarringly broad.

All The Pretty Horses

Let's get this out of the way first: we just don't buy Damon as a cowboy. (Or at least not this kind of cowboy; move the setting forward a decade or two and he could work as one of the modernized cowboys of Brokeback Mountain.) But the real problem with his performance as John Grady Cole, and with the film as a whole, is that for a tale of epic romance, it feels pretty cold. The fault doesn't rest entirely on his shoulders, but Damon never seems to find a spark with onscreen love interest Penelope Cruz. While he's not laughably bad — this isn't his Catwoman or anything — and we can tell he's trying, the whole thing comes off as flat as a flapjack on a Texas prairie. Or something. (Look, we wouldn't cast ourselves as cowboys either.)

 

S.W.A.T.

If this were the only action movie on Renner's CV, he certainly wouldn't be taking over as the lead of the Bourne series. Nor would he have gone toe-to-toe with Cruise or joined the Avengers. Because S.W.A.T. is not good. Remember what we said about Renner avoiding mere stereotype in The Hurt Locker? He has no such luck here as the good-guy-gone-bad Brian Gamble. (Naturally, the film's climax involves a mano-a-mano fight between Renner and former best friend Colin Farrell. Will good triumph over evil? Yes.) Renner brings his trademark intensity — maybe not a good thing in a film so silly — but all he ever really hits are the expected notes for an action-movie baddie.

The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things

In the 2002 serial-killer biopic Dahmer, Renner proved he could bring complexity to a monstrous villain. Renner's character in The Heart Is Deceitful is a child rapist; there's really no coming back from that for the character, obviously, but Renner's performance doesn't do much to make us believe that there is a human there, as opposed to a stock portrayal of a Bad Person. The character as presented gets barely any shading, but that's the kind of thing Renner might've provided, even if it was nowhere to be found in the script. Our theory: he was phoning it in because he realized what a shambles this film would turn out to be.

National Lampoon's Senior Trip

We almost didn't include this 1995 film, because we thought it would be unsportsmanlike. Is there any way to come back from a reviled National Lampoon film? Is there any way to come back from that hair? Renner's acting debut is a painfully misguided teen "comedy," so inept that it feels like it came from another dimension — one where the '70s and the '90s happened at the same time, where crossing guards send children into traffic, and where mean-spirited assholes are roguish and appealing. With a grating smirk, Renner plays the main asshole, whose name is Dags or Chit or Trup or something. If you're feeling masochistic, the whole movie is available on YouTube, where one commenter summed up Renner's performance perfectly: "Now he is better, more hotter."

 


The Verdict

We love Jeremy Renner. We really do. We love his off-beat handsomeness and we love that he flips houses and we love that he took his mom to the Oscars. And we love his acting, too. But here's the thing: it was damn hard to pick Matt Damon's three best films. Damon's had a longer career, it's true, but it's chock full of good stuff. Not to mention, he's already managed three different phases of sexiness: boy next door, action hero, and hot dad. Renner has a lot to do if he wants to catch up with that. And, for real: that hair was so bad.