The Boyfriend of the Week

August 5, 2009 [comment on this write-up]

I first noticed this week's Boyfriend, Jeremy Renner, last April when his TV series, The Unusuals, debuted on ABC. I could tell immediately I was going to have a few issues with the show -- for one thing, its premise seemed to be that cops are weird and dysfunctional (you know, just like the rest of us), but it couldn't make up its mind as to whether it wanted to be serious about exploring that or just silly. I found the bouncing back and forth between the intense and the ridiculous somewhat jarring (Dear Dispatch Lady: Shut up.), an effect made harder to suffer through at times by more than a handful of weak, unoriginal storylines and a bunch of actors who frequently seemed to be playing their parts from the surface without ever taking the risk that comes from letting the water cover your nose (Dear Harold: You. Yes, you.).

That's okay in a pilot, and sometimes I'll even let it slide as far into the season as episode four -- after all, it takes some time for actors to get the hang of their personae and start building their characters into authentic people. But by episode five, everybody ought to have more of a stake in their parts than they seemed to be buying into with The Unusuals.

For those reasons, at the very least, I probably would've stopped watching long before the end of season one (and only), had it not been for Jeremy Renner.

Renner's character, Detective Jason Walsh, was the only one on the show I found intriguing (I do like Amber Tamblyn, I confess, but not so much here). Despite the fact he was given one of the most unoriginal cop characters of all time to play -- the troubled, brooding detective who has just lost his partner in the line of duty -- he still somehow managed to make that character seem authentic and complex. There was just something about Renner that struck me and made me want to keep watching.

Which is weird, really, because, let's be honest here, Renner is not exactly what you'd call "handsome," at least, not in the "traditional" sort of way. Sometimes you catch a glimpse of handsome in him, but most of the time, his face is a bit too wide, his bangs a bit too short, his nose a bit too broad, his eyes a bit too small and far apart, his body a bit too short (sorry, but he's my height exactly and I like being able to wear my tall shoes sometimes, sue me).

Somehow, though, all those "toos" combine to make something that seems oddly just-enough. Throw in a set of the foxiest forearms ever to grace the male form, and what you have is a man I cannot take my eyes off of.

For Renner alone, I ended up watching the whole series and being somewhat sorry, even, to see it go. Who knew when Renner might turn up in something else, after all? It wasn't like he was a big name actor with an enormous fan base, after all.

You can only imagine, then, my unbridled glee (whee! whee!) when, a few months ago, I started to hear some buzz about his starring role in a new Iraq War movie, The Hurt Locker. It finally hit wide distribution in theaters a couple of weeks ago, and I have since seen it twice.

Twenty minutes into my first screening, I knew Jeremy would be the next Boyfriend of the Week. Twenty minutes into my second screening, I was wondering when I might be able to fit in my third. This film is easily one of the top five war movies I have ever seen. It's so amazingly brilliant, actually, that one of the things that delayed this write-up is the fact I've been having a really hard time coming up with things to say about it that don't sound totally dumb in comparison to its genius. (Why I let that stop me this time, I have no idea. It's certainly never been a problem before!)

The Hurt Locker, set in Baghdad in 2004, focuses on three soldiers in an elite Army unit, the EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal). The movie opens with the death of Bravo Company's leader, Sgt. Thompson (Guy Pearce), in a scene that will make your stomach clench into a fist-sized knot approximately fourteen seconds in.

Just so you know: it will not unclench after that for at least 12 hours. Longer if you're me.

Brought in to replace him is Staff Sgt. Will James (Renner), whose leadership style is radically different from that of his predecessor. James immediately clashes with his number two, Sgt. JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie), a cautious, by-the-book sort of soldier who freaks out when James continually gives the metaphoric (and occasionally literal) finger to procedure.

It soon becomes clear that James has no apparent fear of death -- an alarming quality in an EOD specialist, though one you'd also think would sort of have to be a prerequisite. He routinely walks into dangerous situations he doesn't need to walk into, taking Sanborn and the third member of their team, a kid named Spec. Eldridge (Brian Geraghty), into that danger with him. He does things like take off his headset when he gets annoyed with Sanborn, whose job it is to keep an eye out for snipers or dudes with cell phones that look suspiciously like detonators (which is all of them, naturally); or strip off his protective gear despite (because of) the fact he's surrounded by IEDs on all side. He stays at scenes long after the time he should've cleared out, putting both his own life and the lives of his company at risk.

At first it seems like he has a death wish. But it's not really a death wish so much as it's, like, death apathy. The movie wants us to believe that what drives James is an addiction to adrenaline -- after all, it opens with this quote by war correspondent Chris Hedges: "The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug." But James is not a simple adrenaline junkie, and this movie, from my perspective, was not really about addiction to the rush of danger.

Instead, it seemed to be about the variety of ways soldiers, especially young soldiers, respond to danger and fear (for example, look at the differences between James and Eldridge, or even James and Sanborn), and the hardship and confusion that stems from being sent to a place like Iraq to live for an extended period of time -- a place much more like an alien planet than simply another country -- and then asked to return home and do things like shop for groceries with your wife, do the dishes after dinner, play with your children, work at a desk, etc.

Iraq, where everything seems upside-down: the nice people often the most terrifying, the children used as vehicles for bombs, the cats all three-legged and limpy (sorry, I couldn't resist that one -- what was up with all the cats?), the language completely incomprehensible, and your time on the job spent walking right up to the very sorts of things sane people run screaming away from.

When your every-single-day in Iraq is a clenched-stomach tale of impossible odds, how do you go back to picking out a box of cereal in a grocery store? Like it's a task worth your time? Like it's a task of any importance whatsoever? To me, that's not addiction to adrenaline so much as it is PTSD. War breaks minds -- it does it all the time, without mercy or discretion. And to me, that, more than anything else, is what The Hurt Locker is about.

Adding to the tension of this movie is the fact that though it's shot primarily outdoors, often in large open areas of the city or way out in the enormous desert beyond, it's one of the most thoroughly claustrophobic films I've ever seen. No matter how much the camera is pulled back in any given scene, your field of vision remains limited to James and about the first half-meter of the primary blast radius around him. Sometimes, it gets even smaller -- smaller than James, even. Down to the exposed fingertips on his gloved hands and the inch or two that encircles the fuse he's trying to defuse.

When working on an IED, James's gear is almost spacesuit-like, which only adds to the sense of confinement. It's a big clunky helmet and huge padded suit that not only weighs so much it makes him walk heavy and slow like he's on the moon (not ideal for when it comes time to flee, I might note), but has absolutely GOT to be the hottest thing you could possibly wear in Baghdad, Iraq. Every time the face mask came clunking down over James's eyes, I was immediately gripped by a feeling of sick enclosure. The knot in my stomach tightened. I shrunk down a bit more in my seat. And then every time time a bomb was disarmed, James would take his gear off, calmly walk back to the truck, sit, and light a cigarette. And as he'd inhale, I would too, often for the first time in what felt like forever.

As for Renner himself, wow. If I ever had any doubt about his talent, it was completely blown to smithereens by my second time through this film. He is aces, and always has been, at playing distant, emotionally cool characters. But in this movie, at long last, we get to see some cracks. There are several scenes when James just loses it, for one thing. Even more affecting, though, were the scenes in which he exhibited actual tenderness, striking not just because of his reserved character, but because tenderness in that place of violence and strain -- it just plain stands out. Certainly that would include every scene with the little boy he befriends. But there's also a scene towards the end that really stayed with me. A man has had a bomb strapped to his chest and it's covered in half a dozen padlocks so that he can't get free. James is struggling to figure out what to do, as the timer ticks down, down, down, but the man is freaking out, screaming and crying and it's loud and mad and crazy. In the middle of all that chaos, James suddenly cups the back of the man's head gently with his hand, like he's a person, just a regular person in a regular place, and says soothingly, reassuringly, "You're okay." I don't know why that stuck with me, but it did.

And don't even get me started on that shower scene after one of his teammates gets shot. Covered in blood from trying to save his friend's life, James climbs into the shower, gear and all, and we watch as the low-flow military-grade showerhead gradually washes away not only the blood drenching his fatigues, but the last remnants of his steely facade as well.

Goddamn. That, my friends, is what we librarians call ACTING.

Seriously, I could talk about The Hurt Locker all day, and I would, too, if I didn't think it would drive you guys batty. I'll stop now, though, and sum it up with this one last thing: if you haven't seen this movie, GO SEE IT. It is a brilliant film -- absolutely brilliant -- and even though I don't put much stock in the Academy Awards, if it gets shafted for a Best Picture nomination, heads will roll. (I'm starting with Joan Rivers and working my way in from there.)

Just in case brilliant movies (or war movies, or both) aren't your thing, rest assured, Renner has also made his fair share of crap. Which, obviously, is what sealed the deal when it came to his Boyfriend of the Week potential. Don't think I've gone all classy on you guys, just because I saw a "brilliant" movie twice in 10 days. No sir! As soon as I saw The Hurt Locker the first time, I immediately raced home to look up what else he'd been in, and then I picked out the three movies I thought were most likely to suck ass.

The following weekend, I watched all three back-to-back. Here's the tally:

Dahmer (2002) -- While Dahmer is not a terrible stinker of a film, I have to say it didn't really succeed for me as a good movie either. Renner plays the title character, serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, and clearly the plan for this movie was to try to show us the deep-seated emotional scars and hurdles that drove Dahmer to do the terrible things he did. That's a much better idea than a straight-up serial killer gorefest, for sure. Nevertheless, it's probably NOT a great sign that watching this movie made me want to give Jeffrey Dahmer a big schmoopy hug.

There was one scene where I actually muttered, "Aw, poor guy," and then did the double-blink-of-aghastedness when, five seconds later, he started drilling in a hole in some kid's head. There's a way to make this sort of thing work right; Dead Man Walking did it spot-on, for example. But Dahmer didn't manage to pull it off for me, I'm afraid. And for that reason, I can't really say whether or not I felt Renner did a good job here. I didn't really believe him as Dahmer, but what do I actually know about Dahmer? Maybe he was exactly right. All I know is that I left this movie feeling. . . yuck.

28 Weeks Later (2007) -- A feeling I decided to try to enhance instead of ameliorate by watching a flick about people ripping the throats out of other people. YUM! To be honest, I tried to watch this movie, the sequel to the über-awesome 28 Days Later, about a year ago and failed miserably about fifteen minutes in because it was so awful. I couldn't believe the writers and director, who must surely have seen the original, could possibly take that concept and turn it into such extreme crap. Though, why that came as such a surprise given the fact I've seen Blair Witch 2: Book of Shadows, I have no idea. Naiveté, I suppose.

Anyway, this time, I decided to let go of any expectations and watch the movie for what it was: mindless garbage. And, as it turned out, that sort of worked. In this one, Renner plays a U.S. Army sniper (again with the foxy forearms, I must say) brought in to the U.K. twenty-eight weeks after the original outbreak of the Rage Virus. Supposedly, the infected have all starved to death, and the U.S. military is there to help with the process of returning refugees to their homes.

Of course, the minute they decide it's safe enough to bring two CHILDREN back into the country, all hell is naturally going to break loose. Because, as everyone knows, children are EVIL.

In any case, the story is stupid and boring, the characters are stereotypical and flat, the infected (fast moving sorta-zombies!) are no longer exciting now that we've seen countless rip-offs of the original. And shaky cam -- enough now, I beg you. But hey, Jeremy Renner looks great and at least I got through the whole thing. Challenge faced and destroyed. Next target?

North Country (2005) -- To be honest, I saw this movie several years ago, but I couldn't remember who Jeremy played in it. I could only remember that it was its own special kind of suckage. Turns out, I may have blotted out Renner's part because he plays The Asshole. Either that, or it was because of his excruciatingly bad haircut. Either way, I supposed a rescreening was warranted.

This flick, starring Charlize "I Am a Serious Actress! I Am! I Am!" Theron, is based on the true story of the first successful sexual harassment case tried in the United States, Jenson vs. Eveleth Mines, when a bunch of women in the early 1980's, led in the film by Josey Aimes (Theron), sued their employer after years of abuse on the job from their predominantly male coworkers. Dang, long sentence.

Renner plays Bobby Sharp, one of the nastiest of the abusive colleagues, and also a childhood friend of Aimes, go figure. Unfortunately, the only truly thought-provoking thing about this movie was the fact that when it was over, I was more annoyed and disgusted by Renner's Bobby Sharp than I had been by his Jeffrey Dahmer. Little weird.

Incidentally, I thought Renner was pretty good as Wood Hite in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, but that he was pretty forgettable in S.W.A.T. I figured those two canceled each other out, which is why I didn't bother rewatching them in preparation for this write-up. That said, Jeremy definitely gets a few bonus points for singing in Jesse James -- apparently he's a musician as well as an actor. THAT said, I'm deducting at least one of those bonus points because, jeez, who isn't these days? Even Paris Hilton has a record out, for pity's sake.

In any case, I think the primary message to take away from Renner's filmography is that he used to get cast in a lot of sub-par films and was kind of sub-par in them himself. He wasn't that noticeable, at least to me, because he wasn't getting roles that gave him anything spectacular to do. Fortunately for all of us, he started to get a lot more interesting in The Unusuals, and, when finally given a role he could really bite a chunk from in The Hurt Locker, at long last revealed some fairly stellar potential.

I'm hoping that now that The Hurt Locker is getting such good press and attention, it'll only lead to more good stuff for Renner. At present, he has one role locked in -- costarring with Ben Affleck (who also directs) in the FBI agent vs. bank robber vs. cute bank teller flick, The Town. There has also been some buzz that Renner will star in the upcoming fourth installment (because three weren't enough? Really? Three were really not enough?) of the Mad Max films. Other than that, though, his schedule appears to be wide open.

So hey, producers and casting directors and all you other Hollywood types, whoever you are, pay attention -- great actor, needs jobs. Send him something good, why don't you?

And the rest of you guys, go see The Hurt Locker before it leaves theaters. Don't make me have to punch you really, really hard in the stomach to show that I care (that'll mean more to you after you see the film).

MacGyver Factor Score: 96.915%. Points off for having Prince Valiant hair waaaaay too often. Something needs to be done about those bangs, Jeremy. If you have to shave it all off to take care of business, then take care of business. But if I see the Prince Valiant bangs one more time, I'm crackin' skulls.

Points back, though, for his description of his training in the EOD suit before The Hurt Locker began filming:

Then the last fifteen minutes of the EOD test, you take off the helmet and all the gear and go to a chalkboard and they ask you, "What is 49 divided by 7?" All I could think was "I like cookies." They asked, "7 divided into 49" and I was like, "Yeeeeeah, I want a cookie."

Guess what, Jeremy? I LIKE COOKIES TOO. (p.s.: 7)

[comment on this write-up]

Boyfriend-Related Links

Jeremy's IMDb page
Jeremy Renner's movies from Netflix
Official The Hurt Locker site
Jeremy Renner Online (fan site)

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