Matt Damon Vs. Jeremy Renner
And now, the action spectacular you've been waiting for.
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.
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."
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 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.)
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.