The Art of Christian Bale: "Batman Begins" on DVD

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Batman Begins makes a spectacular debut today on Blu-ray, not that the 2005 blockbuster looked shabby on HD (the loser in the HD versus Blu-ray war) or even on standard discs. But the Blu-ray package is killer good, and would be even minus such tasty extras as mini-comics, five Batman postcards and a discount coupon worth $7.50 towards a ticket to The Dark Knight, opening July 18th. The new DVD is clearly meant to psych you hard for the sequel by featuring the first six minutes of Dark Knight. It involves a bank heist led by Heath Ledger's Joker and some homicidal clowns. As I said before, Ledger's acting in his last completed screen role is worthy of an Oscar and a time capsule. But don't let the Ledger dazzle blind you to the rest of the film's power, especially Christian Bale's performance as the Dark Knight himself. Here's the best reason why the new DVD edition of Batman Begins couldn't come at a better time:

You can study how Bale builds a character that transcends comic-book heroics to cut to Batman's tortured soul. This stripped-down prequel grounds the story in reality. If Tim Burton lifted the DC Comics franchise to gothic splendor and Joel Schumacher buried it in campy overkill (George Clooney's Batsuit had nipples), then Bale and director Christopher Nolan — the mind-teasing whiz behind Memento and Insomnia — deserve credit for resurrecting Batman as Bruce Wayne, a screwed-up rich kid with no clue about how to avenge the murders of his parents. Bale does wonders with Batman's origin story. His young, klutzy and untested Caped Crusader is still working out the kinks. He nearly gives himself a wedgie scaling a building in a self-designed Batsuit that weighs a stylish ton. Bale shows us a Batman caught in the act of inventing himself. Nolan is caught, too, in the act of deconstructing the Batman myth while still delivering the dazzle to justify a $150 million budget. Batman Begins is schizo entertainment, just a halting but key first step in building the visionarary landmark that is The Dark Knight. But Bale is doing something akin to what Al Pacino achieved in the first two Godfather films, showing us a haunted man in danger of losing his humanity.

Which brings me to the subject of Bale himself, a British actor born in Wales. Only thirty four, Bale is responsible for some of the more potent and risky performances in recent memory. At thirteen, in Steven Spielberg's criminally underrated Empire of the Sun, Bale excelled as an English schoolboy who lands in a Japanese internment camp during World War II. Since then Bale has shone in movie after movie, without attracting the media attention that goes to the bad boys and tabloid darlings. Next up, in Michael Mann's Public Enemies, he'll be the FBI agent out to bring down Johnny Depp's John Dillinger. And he'll take on the role of John Connor in Terminator Salvation, a rethinking of the franchise directed by McG. If anyone can pull it off, it's Bale. With him, it's all about what's up there on screen. For example, here are a few Bale gems from just this decade:

American Psycho (2000)

The sex and gore of Bret Easton Ellis's 1991 novel are infused with satire by director Mary Harron as a buff and perversely brilliant Bale plays Patrick Bateman, a Wall Street trader with a fiancé (Reese Witherspoon) and disturbingly violent urges that put the cops on his tail. Bale cuts to the toxic center of the yuppie materialism of the Reagan era. He is wicked fun as Bateman and his fellow traders compare business cards with an erotic urgency no woman could hope to stir up.

The Machinist (2004)

The emphasis here was on the sixty-three pounds Bale lost to play Trevor Reznik, a drill-press operator tormented by insomnia. Bale's gripping, beyond-the-call-of-duty performance (a reverse on the fifty-five pounds Robert De Niro gained to play boxer Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull) holds you in thrall.

The Prestige (2006)

Bale springs nifty surrises in this offbeat thriller from Batman director Chris Nolan. Bale and costar Hugh Jackman play turn-of-the-twentieth-century magicians out to beat the other at his own devious game. In The Illusionist, Edward Norton had to work alone. Jackman and Bale make a mind-bending team. Special props to Bale, whose tour de force will spin your head around.

Rescue Dawn (2006)

As Dieter Dengler, a German-born U.S. Navy pilot who was shot down over Laos in 1966, Bale brings a remarkable true story of a POW to vivid life. Critics obsessed over the fact that Bale ate live bugs to get inside his character, but Dieter's passion and obsession are the hallmaks of Bale's performance.

I'm Not There (2007)

Bale joined his Dark Knight costar Heath Ledger to play one of the manifestations of the mystery that is Bob Dylan in Todd Haynes' like-no-other biopic. Bale gets to manifest two sides of the master, as folk prophet Jack and later the Christian convert Pastor John, revving up the congregation with "Pressing On."

3:10 to Yuma (2007)

Bale is the anti-American Psycho as a rancher and family man determined to bring in Russell Crowe's charmboy villain. Virtue can be hell — not to mention boring — to play, but director James Mangold put a top-notch actor in the saddle. Bale actually makes you root for a moral code.

OK, that's where I stand. Name your own Bale bests and worsts.