Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol opens today, and while it's Tom Cruise's movie, it ushers in a new era: Jeremy Renner, action star. Well, maybe. Renner is already working on The Bourne Legacy and The Avengers, but he has yet to prove himself as a bankable leading man. He landed the Bourne franchise by being the compromise choice for all parties, and his Hawkeye's a supporting player in The Avengers, not the star. But Hollywood's light is on leading men right now, especially ones who, like two-time Oscar-nominee Renner, can actually act. Will Renner and his slightly menacing manner prove to be a box-office draw? Can he do popcorn as well as he does prestige? If Jeremy Renner were a stock, would you buy, sell, or hold?
Stock History: Renner, 40, had a long résumé, indie cred (Dahmer), and some solid supporting work (28 Weeks Later, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), but he didn't break out until 2009's The Hurt Locker. That film earned Renner great reviews and his first Oscar nomination, and he immediately followed that up with an equally intense performance in 2010's The Town, which earned him his second.
Peers: Renner is by far the oldest of his equals, who include Chris Pine (31), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (30), James Franco (33), Bradley Cooper (36), Ryan Gosling (31), and Tom Hardy (34) – and like the lot of them, "none have proven themselves as box-office draws," says one agent, "They're not consistent like Tom Cruise and Will Smith were when they were younger."
Market Value: Renner's sample size is too small to say. The Hurt Locker grossed $17 million domestically — but it was also a critical smash, and it won an award or two. The Town had more than twice The Hurt Locker's budget and pulled in a respectable $92 million domestically — but it would be hard to trace that film's financial success to Renner in any meaningful capacity. Renner's value is still all hypothetical, but it's based on his performance in both of these films. In Hurt Locker and The Town Renner demonstrated he had a real, swaggering, gritty machismo. Unlike some of his peers, he seems like a plausible action hero. But his career crucibles are all ahead of him with M:I: Ghost Protocol opening today, followed by a trio of action movies: Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, The Avengers, and The Bourne Legacy.
What Hollywood Thinks: "He's a rugged leading guy, which are in exceedingly short supply these days," says one agent. "Right now, he's at the top of the list – though that's partly because he's operating in a world with little competition. Ask yourself: 'How many rugged, leading guys are there?'"
One top producer agrees, adding, "He is a good actor and it seems like he wants to do action movies, and there are not a lot of guys who can do that. As a result, there's been a real drought in that area. Think of the movies people our age grew up on: The Die Hard and Predator action-y stuff. They hardly ever get made today."
As a result, our agent says, "He gets offered almost anything, and he's really in the mix on everything. He turned down [Crazy Heart director] Scott Cooper's Out of the Furnace at Relativity Media. I know they want him for J. Blakeson's next movie at MRC [a Media Rights Capital detective noir, Bad Blood and Trouble, set in Miami]."
It's not clear that Renner can become, with his pudgy-face and ordinary-guy demeanor, a traditional leading man for big-budget studio pictures. Said one current head of marketing at a major studio, "He's a very good actor that brings quality to anything he does, but I don't think he is a box-office draw yet, except maybe to true cinephiles." If Renner is going to step into a leading-man position, insiders think it's going to be through Bourne — though even that is far from a sure thing. Explains one manager, "People trust that Bourne Legacy will work and he will be [the next] Matt Damon, but I still think there is a bit of 'wait-and-see.' Right now, he can definitely get a movie going in the U.S. at a price – $40 million and under, for sure – with the right vehicle. I think he's the best bad guy ever, but ... well, let's see if he's as likable as [Damon was playing] Jason Bourne."
"Is he a leading man? I am not sure what that means anymore in a world where Tom Cruise is invisible in the [new] Mission: Impossible campaign and Matt Damon has been supplanted by a zebra with a bow on its back [in posters for We Bought a Zoo]," says one former head of marketing at a major studio turned consultant. "I often feel that Will Smith may be the last leading man on earth. So, Jeremy Renner? I have no idea ... I literally get all of those young guys confused ... I am not sure I would recognize Michael Fassbender if he walked up to me."
The Analysis: The race to be the next Matt Damon or Leonardo DiCaprio is wide open: Renner's on the older side of breaking out, but there aren't many young actors hot on his heels, and he's already got plenty of cachet, if not star power. If anyone can slide into the spotlight, it would seem to be Renner. Certainly, with all the action movies he has lined up, he's going to take his shot— and if any of them hit, especially Bourne or Hansel and Gretel, both of which he's really toplining, Renner should be in great shape.
But even if Renner doesn't appear in a smash, he should be all right: Not only is the general action-hero void working in his favor, so is the fact that many of the big tentpole films of today (like The Avengers) are sold on the franchise, not on the star. He's a good actor who seems interested in doing mainstream work: Even if he turns out not to be a guy who can command a huge audience, he can still be the guy who collects a hefty paycheck. And, as that manager noted, he does make for a great bad guy. Given his age and his chops, in the worst case, he should be able to carve out steady gigs stealing scenes as a villain.
Rating: Buy – Renner isn't proven, but that's why he's still affordable; and at the rate he's going, he will likely never again be as cheap as the incredibly scant $65,000 he made for The Hurt Locker.