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Thursday, June 30, 2005 11:54 pm

flicks 6-30-05

Who is Batman? No, not the character’s secret identity, Bruce Wayne. Who is Christian Bale, the star of the new film Batman Begins? Even after a career spanning 18 years, Bale is a relative unknown. Born in 1974, the Welsh actor first became known to American audiences with his starring role in Steven Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun (1987), a World War II drama about a British youth sent to a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in China. He showed great promise as a child actor, but the film is not among Spielberg’s best. Bale continued acting throughout his teen years with little recognition and had the misfortune of appearing in the period musicals Newsies (1992) and Swing Kids (1993). He also provided one of the voices in Pocahontas (1995). Bale’s first significant adult role was in the cult film Velvet Goldmine (1998), a terrible film about glam-rock in the 1970s.

Stagnation appeared to finally be ending when Bale was cast as the lead in the controversial American Psycho (2000). Bale’s razor-sharp portrayal of a slick yuppie who moonlights as a serial killer was the first indication of the actor’s versatility. The film successfully slices and dices the conservative values of the Reagan era, but satire often fizzles at the box office.

Conservatism followed Bale to his next worthy film, Laurel Canyon (2002), in which he was cast as a med-school graduate who can’t relate to the bohemian lifestyle of his rock-producer mother (Frances McDormand). Canyon is witty and funny, but because no one liked it but me, you may want to think twice about taking my recommendation. Bale rounded out the year with two action flicks: Reign of Fire, a mediocre dragon fantasy, and Equilibrium, a little-seen science-fiction drama. The latter features Bale as a law-enforcement officer in a future society that has banned human feeling. Comparisons to The Matrix have plagued the film, but it stands on its own as one of the better films of the genre in recent years.

The Machinist (2004) may have labored to find an audience, but it is a breakthrough role for Bale. He took dedication to its limits by shedding 63 pounds to portray a freakish factory worker who is losing his mind, and his performance is riveting. Perhaps a bit too surrealistic and puzzling for all tastes, The Machinist, just out on DVD, is a surefire cult hit. Box-office success with Batman Begins is something new for this old-timer, and it will be fascinating to watch how Bale’s career shifts. Next up for the actor is Terrence Malick’s period drama The New World, scheduled for release on Nov. 9.

DVDs scheduled for release Tuesday (July 5): Hide and Seek, Bride and Prejudice, Dear Frankie, In My Country, and Prozac Nation.