Jeremy Renner's 'Mission' to Become a Leading Man (Analysis)

Jeremy Renner - Head Shot - 2011

With starring roles in "Avengers" and "Bourne Legacy" in 2012, the actor once considered Tom Cruise's heir apparent is poised for mainstream stardom.

This article first appeared in the Jan. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

At the end of Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol, Jeremy Renner accepts an invitation to become an official member of Tom Cruise’s IMF team. The moment both closes his character’s arc and signals the potential at play in Renner’s career: Will he join Cruise on Hollywood’s A-list?

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There are few actors more poised for mainstream stardom than Renner. Coming off Ghost Protocol’s $450 million (and climbing) worldwide gross, the two-time Oscar nominee has a clutch of movies hitting in the next year that will put him in the spotlight like never before. Renner, 41, plays Hawkeye in Disney/Marvel’s May release The Avengers and headlines August’s The Bourne Legacy, taking over Universal’s billion-dollar franchise from Matt Damon.

Renner was supposed to first be seen in Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters in March. But on Jan. 9, Paramount shifted the release of its action-oriented take on the fairy tale to January 2013, in part because the studio is betting that Renner will be a bigger global star after Avengers and Bourne.

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Renner, and, to a certain extent, Hollywood in general, hopes so. For all the media hype in August 2010 that accompanied his joining the fourth Mission: Impossible — many speculated that the movie, Renner’s first seven-figure payday, would groom him to “replace” the then-diminished and aging Cruise — it is Cruise, 49, who has received the credit and career boost from the film. Renner, who established critical chops in The Hurt Locker and The Town, is still a question mark commercially. And Ghost Protocol, which barely featured Renner in ads, hasn’t quelled the concerns of a town searching desperately for a new crop of global movie stars.

Still, Renner and his reps at CAA and Untitled have been smart about building on his 2009 breakout role in Hurt Locker. Following a standout supporting turn in Ben Affleck’s The Town, joining Avengers put him in a comic book movie with worldwide recognition — and if it fails, being part of an ensemble won’t hurt his star power. Jumping into Bourne is much riskier. He’s shouldering an action movie by himself, making what a source says is $5 million to $7 million, and inviting comparisons to Damon, whose name has defined the franchise. But Renner has fans in Hollywood, thanks to a guy’s-guy appeal that eludes many stars.

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“When Renner throws a punch, it feels like a real punch,” says a top producer. “That’s a big challenge for a lot of actors.” If Bourne works, Renner will have another franchise — Universal has signed him for multiple pictures. Paramount also has Renner locked up for another Mission, but the studio and the very busy Cruise haven’t solidified plans for M:I5 or Renner’s involvement (both appear likely).

Ryan Reynolds, last year’s next big thing, is a relevant case study. After his great summer of 2009 (The Proposal, X-Men Origins: Wolverine), Reynolds starred in the indie horror flop Buried and took on the disappointing Green Lantern and the raunchy comedy The Change-Up. Amid all that, he booked starring roles in Safe House opposite Denzel Washington and the supernatural actioner RIPD. Reynolds’ career is still strong, but he is definitively more earthbound than he once was.

Renner is shrewdly hedging his bets by developing material for himself via the Combine, the production company he and Don Handfield launched. A real-life racing story, Slingshot, and a Steve McQueen biopic are in the works, so Renner could explode to leading-man stardom or settle into character work.

“He’s certainly not ready to carry a film yet,” says a top talent lawyer. “Of course, the catch-22 is that no one will know whether he’s ready until he does it — and whichever studio gets that film will be the lottery winner.”