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Christian Bale should do more movies like RESCUE DAWN and fewer like BATMAN

Very few people speak ill of Christopher Nolan’s BATMAN trilogy. The series shattered box office records, earned multiple Oscar nominations (and wins), and is often considered the greatest superhero trilogy in movie history. And yet, deep down in my heart, I’ll never be able to forgive Nolan for wasting precious years of Christian Bale‘s productive career, when the versatile actor could have been making more passionate, provocative films like Werner Herzog’s stirring RESCUE DAWN — airing tonight at 10P on Sundance Channel.

Bale might disagree. There’s little doubt that his time spent in Nolan’s Batcave has made him almost as wealthy as Gotham billionaire Bruce Wayne. And a fiscal windfall usually buys an artist creative freedom. Surely, from here on out, Bale does not have to let salary dictate the projects he chooses. He’ll be able to accept whatever roles challenge him best. Right?

But I can’t stop thinking about the movies Bale could have been making during these years instead of burying his face behind the Dark Knight’s signature cape and cowl, hiding his authoritative voice behind a superhero growl.

Before signing on to Nolan’s trilogy, Bale had starred in a handful of truly memorable indie pictures, which helped establish him as a visceral actor with talent to burn. His commitment to physically daunting parts in AMERICAN PSYCHO, VELVET GOLDMINE and EQUILIBRIUM were borderline frightening. And then Bale raised his own bar even higher by transforming his physique to play an emaciated, guilt-ridden loner in the harrowing, unforgettable THE MACHINIST.

BATMAN BEGINS changed the actor’s career path — for both better and worse. There’s no question that playing Batman raised Bale’s profile for people who never bothered to see his earlier, more rewarding features. But BEGINS and its sequels, THE DARK KNIGHT and THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, also prompted studio executives to view Bale as something he really isn’t: a bankable action hero. Not only did Bale waste valuable time on three Batman movies, he tried to revive a long-dead TERMINATOR franchise with the disjointed TERMINATOR SALVATION, stumbled through a Michael Mann period crime drama in PUBLIC ENEMIES and wrestled with a half-baked David Ayer cop movie, HARSH TIMES.

To his credit, Bale refused to pledge whole-heartedly to the same big-money studio system that swallowed up similar talents like Ben Affleck, Robert Downey Jr. and Tobey Maguire. In between the high-profile gigs, Bale signed on to an esoteric Terrence Malick film (THE NEW WORLD), a revisionist Western (3:10 TO YUMA) and an experimental Bob Dylan biography (I’M NOT THERE). He won an Oscar for losing himself in the portrayal of a crack addict in David O. Russell’s THE FIGHTER. Bale knows this is his strength. These are the films that butter his creative bread.

Think how many more of those deliciously provocative films we could have had if Bale had passed the Batman baton to another actor.

Listen, Bale was fine as Bruce Wayne. But unlike Heath Ledger‘s brilliant spin on the iconic Joker personality, many other actors could have done what Bale did in the part. When you watch Bale in RESCUE DAWN —- playing a resilient American POW during the Vietnam War — you realize that few are more compelling than Bale when he’s firing on all cylinders. I for one would prefer Bale apply himself to riveting indies with challenging directors and leave the soulless blockbusters to Shia LaBeouf.

Photo credit: MGM; Warner Bros.