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A case for Christian Bale

Wait ... is that ... is that a ... is that a SMILE? On Christian Bale's FACE?

Wait ... is that ... is that a ... is that a SMILE? On Christian Bale's FACE?

There comes a time in a reviewer’s life when she (this is my story, so the reviewer has girl parts) must defend the honor of a very fine actor who has, in recent times, made several not very fine movies. Or seems to have grown an ego large enough to consume Amy Winehouse’s beehive with a single dainty princess bite.

To no one’s surprise … that actor is Christian Bale.

Of late, several friends (and, OK, me) have mentioned that the post-“Batman” Bale bears precious little resemblance to the actor who wowed us with intense performances in movies of every genre, from odd, disturbing arthouse to coming-of-age drama to nihilistic horror. Whatever magic Bale had, whatever innate ability to dissolve completely into a character and eliminate all traces of self, he’s starting to lose it. He’s certainly never been a whimsical actor, but these days he seems to approach every role the way Idi Amin approached dissenters. And Bale’s just about that subtle, too.

Despite this turn of events, I want to believe that Bale isn’t through yet, that he didn’t let “Batman” fame ruin him for acting forever. Why, you wonder, would I keep hoping when there’s so much evidence suggesting that he is, well, a complete jackass? One: The cynic inside hasn’t managed to kill the dreamer … just duct-taped her and stashed her in the nearest closet. And two: Bale has a history too full of daring, innovative or just plain commendable performances that suggest there’s enough talent to beat down that ego.

So now I present the facts:

  • “El Maquinista” — Every list of great Christian Bale performances must be topped with his work in “The Machinist.” It counts as a stunning physical transformation because Bale did Matt Damon’s gaunt smackhead in “Courage Under Fire” one better. Bale lost a frightening amount of weight to play tortured insomniac Trevor Reznik, so much that you fear for the actor’s own safety. It’s an extreme, brave performance, and that’s what makes it so haunting and memorable.
  • “American Psycho” — Bale might not have been the first choice to play superficial, amoral serial killer Patrick Bateman, but he was the best. As buff as his “Machinist” character was skeletal, he manages to evoke wit, charm underlined by subtle menace as a murderer who takes lives for no other reason than to curb his boredome. Compelling, scary stuff.
  • “Little Women” — Anyone who believes Bale came out of the womb with a grim frown on that chiseled face need only look back to 1994, where he played the spritely, witty, delightful Laurie in Gillian Armstrong’s “Little Women.” Fifteen years later, his heartfelt speech to Jo March still makes my heart turn into a mushy, mushy bowl of Cornflakes.
  • “Harsh Times” — Bale, much like Ray Liotta, possesses just enough menace to make him seem a hair-trigger from cheerfully choking (or worse) the next person who steps in his path. He tapped into that bubbling inner rage pit to play Jim, an ex-Army ranger discharged for mysterious reasons. PTSD turns him into violent, delusional free agent, but Bale makes him into someone who seems human despite his seemingly inhuman rage.
  • “The Prestige” — Here is a movie that I love for many reasons, and the main one is Christian Bale as Alfred Borden, a magician with loads of raw talent but (surprise!) little flash and almost no skills. But Bale had a gleam in his eye, a slight spring in his step that suggested he was having a bit more fun with this part, crafted in part by Christopher Nolan. Oh, Chris, can’t you coax Fun Bale out again?
  • “3:10 to Yuma” — I can’t quite resist a film (especially a Western) where the hero (Bale) is far more discouraged and damaged than the villain. Enter Bale as Dan Evans, a got-nothing-left-to-lose man who can’t even farm his land, much less keep the respect of his wife or teenage son. There’s a hint of sly humor in his verbal sparring matches with Russell Crowe that suggests Bale does have a lighter side … buried under all those layers of dark twistiness.

Perhaps there is hope for Christian Bale yet, though his next projects — including a pic about boxer “Irish” Micky Ward, a pairing with Mark Wahlberg for 2011’s “Prisoners” and more movies for the “Terminator” and “Batman” sagas — hardly suggest he’s lightening up. Maybe he can wise up to the fact that it’s possible to play a serious character without losing his sense of humor.

At the very least, he could take Heath Ledger’s advice and, every other day or so, look in the mirror and ask himself: “Why so serious?” ‘Cause chances are, Mr. Bale, if you’re not having the slightest bit of fun, neither are we.