Neo Ned
2005. Not Rated. Director: Van Fischer. Renner plays Ned, a neo-Nazi criminal who has been committed to a mental institution

Ned and Rachael driving

The concept is eyebrow-raising: a white supremacist falls in love with a black woman who claims she's the reincarnation of Adolph Hitler. How can they pull this off without offending the majority of the audience and/or trivializing the subject matter? The answer is... they can't, really. The good news is that the movie is played as a relatively harmless screwball romance rather than a social statement; even if it is in bad taste (I found myself cringing whenever Ned went out in public in his swastika T-shirt -- and he spends half the movie wearing it), it has its moments. Gabrielle Union is engagingly wry and vulnerable and has great chemistry with Renner, whose character is unlike any other I've seen him play. Ned is spastic, easily distracted, overflowing with energy and poorly controlled urges, but surprisingly gentle at heart. (From what I have seen, Ned is the character most like Renner in real life.) It's soon clear that his association with neo-Nazis is a case of an impressionable kid with a bad home life falling in with the wrong crowd, and once he gets to know Rachael (or, as he continues to call her, Adolph), his prejudices easily fall away. Narratively, this probably lets him (and society in general) off the hook too easily, but I can't muster much indignation that Renner avoided another evil sociopath role. And as a major plus, this movie features his hottest sex scene ever. And when I say hot, I mean smoking!



The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
2007. Rated R. Director: Andrew Dominik. Renner plays Wood Hite, cousin of Jesse James and an occasional member of his gang.

Outlaws in the woods

A period piece set in the American midwest of the 1880s, the film chronicles the collapse of a criminal gang from the inside as various associates of the famous outlaw Jesse James turn against each other.

There's some beautiful cinematography and poetic Deadwood-like language, and Casey Affleck is weirdly fascinating in his portrayal of Robert Ford, a pathetic hero worshipper whose obsession turns bitter once he gets to know the real Jesse James. Yet there is a stilted quality to the film. It tries to fit in a lot of characters and events that don't always seem connected to one another. (A particular oddity is the repeated mention of someone named Jim Cummins, who never appears in the film as far as I could tell.) A voiceover helps us to understand what's happening, but it adds to the sense of narrative distance. Also, it's weird how women seem to be entirely unimportant to the filmmakers. Perhaps they are making a point about how these criminal gangs thought of the world? Ummm... actually, I think they just don't care.

Renner's role as Wood Hite is fairly minor, though he does get a chance to sing at a campfire before a train robbery and later takes part in the most puzzlingly inaccurate gun fight I've ever seen on film. An odd highlight of the film is an appearance by Nick Cave in a bar near the end, entertaining the patrons with a song about what a coward Robert Ford is. I was surprised in the moment, but in retrospect, I have to say this is exactly the kind of movie you should expect to find Nick Cave in.



The Unusuals
2009. Unrated. Renner plays Detective Jason Walsh, a police officer in New York City's 2nd Precinct

Walsh and Shraeger pay a visit to a mistress

"The Unusuals" was a late-season introduction on ABC in 2009 that lasted for 10 episodes before being canceled. A blend of buddy comedy, eccentric workplace slice o' life, and crime thriller, it didn't really cohere that well, but some elements of it were very well done. I really loved Adam Goldberg as the cranky detective Eric Delahoy, who's in a state of denial after learning he has a brain tumor and starts acting out strangely. The interplay between him and his neurotic partner (played by Harold Perrineau) is hilarious. Amber Tamblyn is also appealing in her portrayal of a privileged rich girl who is trying to hide her past from her blue-collar fellow detectives so they will take her seriously as a policewoman. On the other hand, an early storyline about another detective's criminal past and the lowlife associate who won't let it go is gratingly horrible. It's over with by episode five, but alas, that isn't soon enough.

Renner's character is middle-of-the-road: appealing, but not developed very well. He owns a hole-in-the-wall restaurant that is open only when he isn't working and feels like cooking, and his menu consists of ghastly improvised items like pork chops drenched in a Skittles reduction" because he ran out of fruit. (People regularly grimace in disgust after tasting his fare.) This, along with his practical jokes in the workplace, lead me to believe that Walsh was conceived as an amusing and eccentric loner we are supposed to find fascinating. I'm sorry to say that it doesn't work. Maybe it's the writing (some early mystery about his character is squandered within a few episodes), maybe it's Renner's performance, but rather than being gripping he's just kind of solid. There are some nice sexy scenes between him and his secret workplace girlfriend, though.



The Town
2010. Rated R. Director: Ben Affleck. Renner plays Jem Coughlin, bank robber and best friend of Ben Affleck's main character.

The crew gets a talking-to from The Florist

Bank robbers in Charlestown are pursued by the FBI in a game of cat and mouse. This movie is somewhat reminiscent of S.W.A.T. in its character dynamics. Renner plays a brutal and unpredictable hothead who is contrasted with a morally upstanding partner, in this case played by Affleck. And once again, the good guy turns out to be a bit of a snooze. Affleck is definitely hunky with his understated humor and tattoos, but his energy level is so low that I found it hard to become invested in his fate. His romantic interest (played by Rebecca Hall) has a bit of quirky charm that lightens the material somewhat; you can understand what he sees in her. But his criminal associates don't want to let him go, least of all to shack up with a potential witness against them. Renner plays his best friend Coughlin as a live wire quivering with hostile energy, both electric and deadly. He has none of his friend's qualms about violence; for him, it's a feature, not a bug, and after spending nine years in prison, he's ready to blow off some steam. Though this is one of Renner's more unpleasant roles, his screen presence is undeniable. (It resulted in his second Oscar nomination.) Add in Pete Postlethwaite's flinty crime boss and Jon Hamm's bloodhound of an FBI agent, and the results were guaranteed to involve plenty of gunfire. However, I was left with a sense that it all should have been more meaningful, or at least more thrilling.