Christian Bale: Actor, Star or Flameout?

Christian Bale, preparing to meet his unmaker in Terminator: Salvation.

With this week's release of Terminator: Salvation, a lot of moviegoers will be reconsidering the career of Christian Bale, a subtle underplayer who is not the kind of guy you'd expect to find in a summer blockbuster like the Terminator or Batman, but hey, neither are Johnny Depp or Robert Downey, Jr. I think this character assassination is just plain mean. Not to mention wrongheaded.

Ever since Bale surfaced in Empire of the Sun (1987), registering one of the best performances ever by a child actor (he really conveyed his character's alienation and dreams as a kid interned in a Japanese concentration camp during World War II) he's had a remarkable ride, mostly in independent movies where his low-key work is best appreciated. Consider his filmography, He was the wistful boy unionist of Newsies, singing about Santa Fe and dancing in New York's Park Row; a London teen of uncertain sexual preference, decisively stamped by the gender-bending milieu of glam-rock in The Velvet Goldmine; Everygirl's first romantic hero, tender Laurie Laurence in Little Women; Everywoman's horror date,  American Psycho; a guilty manorexic in the intense The Machinist; gentle planter John Rolfe, Pocahontas' husband, in The New World; the disciplined psychoanalyst son of a hippie mom in Laurel Canyon (his richest performance); the bounty-hunting father, quietly facing down the showy Russell Crowe in 3:10 to Yuma; and of course, the mixed-up Bruce Wayne and his alter ego in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. (I've forgotten Rescue Dawn, where he was also terrific.) I can't think of another actor of his generation who has exhibited so much range -- and restraint.

Bale's whispery voice, cut-glass cheekbones and 100-mile stare is reminiscent of Henry Fonda and Clint Eastwood, actor/stars more reliant on their guts than their charisma. Though I like that he doesn't turn up the volume in Batman and Terminator, the quiet of his acting is easily drowned out  by the clank and grind of the machinery in these Big Machine movies. You? Are you a Bale fan, agnostic, hater? Why?